Every Rose Has A Thorn: Change My Everyday

Title: Change My Everyday
Author: Arsenic
Rating: R, SLASH
Fandom: XOVER (BSB/Nsync)
Pairing: Lance/Howie
Disclaimer: I know none of these people, nor do I have any reason to believe their sexual preference is other than they claim it to be. This is fiction.
Thanks: To Nyn, for doing a concept read over and being the reason that I was able to finish this, let alone allow people to see it. Oh, and for sharing in the Lance/Howie love.
Notes: There are a lot of factual issues in this story as far as dates and stuff go, because I didn't know a lot when I started writing and by the time I realized it I was too lazy to rework everything that needed reworking to make it correct. Sorry if this bothers people.
Summary: Life and love in a boyband. Can't really get much more specific than that.


It was impossible not to hear rumors in the business. There were the ones that could be dismissed immediately, like Brian cheating on Leighanne, because even the thought would have sent Brian into fits of praying for forgiveness. There were the laughable ones, like AJ picking up hookers; AJ could have anyone he wanted and considered having to pay someone an insult to the self. There were the ones to be mildly curious over -- if the truth wasn't readily available -- like whether JC Chasez had gotten a fan pregnant, although JC didn't seem like the type to be that careless. Most of the time, Howie chose to be either amused by them or ignore them, because doing anything else would have been a near immediate path to insanity. Especially when the rumors concerned him.

Rumors were intangible, easy to push aside. The letters were harder. Most of the time the people who went through their letters were pretty on top of things. Still, there had been the letter that had slipped through full of abusive words about Nick's newly gained weight, causing the other four to panic that the kid would start starving himself all over again. Kevin had finally sat him down and explained how much shit the rest of them had gone through covering for him during his first bout anorexia, and mentioned that if he insisted on another, they wouldn't bother. He had been nice about it, Kevin was always good with making threats sound like concerned advice, but Nick had gotten the message. It was a good thing too, because none of them would have actually been able to follow through on that one. Where Nick was concerned, the other four had protective streaks that rivaled that of a parent's.

There had been the letter that had pointed out to Kevin that he was too old for the Boys. He had silently handed that one over to Kristin, who had gazed at him and said, "Yeah, but you're still the sexiest."

Kevin had nodded at her, "You want the honor of responding?" Howie had intervened at that because Kristin was pretty unflappable, but at the same time tenaciously protective when it came to the man she had married.

AJ would come and rant to Howie about the racist ones that leaked through to him, because Howie had run into a few of those himself, if not as many as the darker, younger member of the band. The worst that Brian usually got were derogatory comments about his height or his faith and Nick could always tease his best friend out of the funk that those letters put him in.

Though Howie had a hard time coming out and saying something was wrong, he could get even more quiet when things weren't going his way. It was usually Kevin that noticed. Howie was closer with AJ, but the oldest member was more observant and the two were closer in age, which sometimes mattered.

"You've gone positively silent on us, D." Kevin's accent was stronger when he wasn't in front of cameras.

Howie smiled. "Haven't been feeling too well, going easy on the voice."

"Uh huh. So this would have nothin' to do with that letter about you bein' a fag? An 'abomation' in the eyes of the lord?" Kevin rolled his eyes at the creative spelling that had littered the letter.

"I swear, Kev, I'm gonna start burning my letters. I put it in the trash."

"Yeah, exactly. You never put letters in the trash. Not from the fans, not from your family, not from anyone. I've seen the books you keep, pages of pink stationary carefully placed in plastic covers, kept in binders. Shit D, if we were given all our letters you'd have to build an extra room onto your house to keep all that stuff."

"I suppose I just want reminders. Beyond the tacky merchandise."

"Hey, I liked the new hats. You weren't going to tell any of us, you never do, so AJ and I peeked."

"How'd you get stuck with cheer-up duty?"

"Know how AJ rubs his index finger over the 69 tattoo when he's nervous?"

Howie nodded.

"Yeah, well, he was doing that, so I figured it probably wasn't the best time to send him up to bat."

Howie smiled, comforted by one of Kevin's semi-recurrent baseball metaphors. "You think homosexuals are 'abomations' in the eyes of the lord?"

"I dunno, you're Catholic, you tell me."

"I was brought up to believe that they were, but I'm asking you, good little Southern Christian boy."

"Brian's the good one. And the little one, for that matter."

"Answer the question."

"I don't know. I used to. I mean, I was told they were. And it didn't seem right, definitely couldn't figure out the mechanics of it when I was a little kid. Then I put us together, and we were in Amsterdam and places I'd never been before seeing things I hadn't imagined seeing. For a while, I thought Nick was, the way he could be all touchy and squealy and it scared me because I knew that even if he was, even if he told me, it wouldn't change a damn thing. I was still gonna love him and wanna kill anyone who hurt him." Kevin hadn't looked at anything but Howie's eyes the whole time he was talking.

Howie closed his eyes momentarily. "Don't tell the others?" Kevin looked uncertain, so he pushed ahead before the older man could say anything. "I'm gonna tell'em, I am. I just need to do it, not have it done and then things change and it wasn't even my decision that changed them."

Kevin tilted his head. "AJ knows. He, uh, well, I had suspected for awhile, but when he saw the letter... He's more aware of things than we give him credit for, and he noticed when you took up designated driving as a profession rather than a part time occupation."

"What does that have to do with anything?"

"Says you stopped taking girls home when you stopped climbing out of your mind at the clubs. Y'know AJ though, sometimes you have to get him near to death by alcohol poisoning to get him to deal with things."

"Is Brian gonna freak?"

"Maybe, a little bit. Didn't you when you first figured it out?"

"Only for the first ten years or so."

"Give Brian a month. He once told me that the whole thing with his heart was just a reminder that G-d doesn't make anything without quirks."

"There's a difference between having a congenital heart problem and wanting to get it on with people of your own sex. There is no place in the bible that condemns being sick, I know, as you pointed out, I'm Catholic."

"Brian's bad at hate. He used to stick up for kids when everybody else would make fun of 'em." Kevin looked slightly exasperated.

"How often did you take beatings for him?"

Kevin smiled. "It was easier takin' the beatings than worrying that they would kill him. 'Sides, I won. Sometimes."

"Sure you did, you manly man, you." AJ's voice came from the doorway.

Howie spun around. "How long've you been there?"

AJ walked in and sat down. "Since I got over myself and decided to be a supportive friend."

"You got over yourself?" Kevin looked mildly interested.

AJ ignored him. "D, um, you're still the guy I went to when Sera dumped me and when I realized I couldn't stop taking the caffeine pills. You're still the guy I watch smooth everything over between Nick and Brian, or Nick and anyone, time and again. Who you're attracted to, that's just a detail."

"Hey," Brian's head appeared in the doorway. "Whatcha doin'?"

"Talkin' 'bout you." Kevin replied, straight-faced.

"Yeah, I believed that, when I was like, what, six?" Brian rolled his eyes. "C'mon, Nick wants to go swimming, it'll be more fun if I have you guys as backup."

"Backup?" AJ inquired dryly.

Brian's smile turned mischievous. "You'll see."

And although they all acted too old and too cool to want to know what Brian was planning, they got up and followed him to the pool.


Lance had told the guys after he'd gotten sick.

It was right after he'd started working again, at dinner one night. JC was pretending not to be watching Lance eat, and Justin kept sneaking mashed potatoes onto Lance's plate when he thought nobody was looking. Chris was talking without pause at the same time that he was eating, leaving Lance to wonder when he was getting a chance to breath. Joey was concentrating on keeping Chris in a sitting position so that he wouldn't choke while bouncing around.

"Um." Lance interrupted Chris's deluge of thoughts on some CD he had just bought, causing the latter to start choking, and everyone else to try and decide whether they wanted to stare at Lance or worry about whether Chris was dying.

Joey solved the problem by pounding Chris's back a few times and handing him a glass of water. When Chris was breathing again, Joey turned to Lance, "Something up?"

Lance hadn't harbored any homicidal intentions towards Chris and was now feeling even more flustered than he had been when he'd finally worked up the nerve to alert everyone that he was about to talk. "Uh, yeah."

"If this is about the potatoes, I'm sorry, it's just, you're really skinny man, and it's kinda gross, and I-"

"It's not about the potatoes, Justin." Lance smiled as best he could in the direction of the younger man. "I just, well, for one thing, I wanted to thank you."

Everyone was giving him slightly confused looks at that, so he backpedaled. "For taking care of me and everything, you were...you were my family. I would have cracked without you guys."

"We are your family. If there was some doubt about that, then somebody was making a mistake." Joey's tone was slightly offended.

"No, I -- well, there's not anymore." Lance tapped his fork against his plate with nervous energy before JC reached out to stop him, hand over the younger man's hand.

"Jesus, Lance, just spit it out, man." Patience was not Chris's foremost virtue.

"I'm gay."

"Oh." Chris looked a little sorry that he had forced that confession. "Good. Because I thought you were gonna say you had some dark secret in your past, like you smothered your baby brother to death when you were six with a pillow, or something like that. Things like that are hard to spin."

"I thought for sure he was about to tell us that he'd flunked his musical theory classes and that we were going to have to hack into his school records and change his grades before anyone found out that Nsync's bass singer is actually musically-challenged," Joey argued with Chris.

"Naw, I was all up for hearing about how Lance's grandparents were actually first cousins. I mean, dude, he's from Mississippi." Justin was laughing at himself.

"J, shut up, you're from frickin' Tennessee and none of us get on you about your family." JC had gotten even more protective of Lance since the sickness.

Lance, for once, was too preoccupied with the fallout of his announcement to worry about the insult to his family. "Uh guys?"

A chorus of "yeses" came tumbling back to him.

"I just-"

"Came out to us, congrats. We're proud and all, it just doesn't change anything." Chris, having lost his fear of the food that had almost done him in moments before, returned to eating.

"A family that gets rid of a member for something stupid like that isn't a family. And I'm not a hypocrite." Joey shrugged as if this had been his obvious response all along.

Justin mimicked Joey's shrug. "Whatever. You have a good voice and you're almost as young as me. If I can forgive the fact that you suck at basketball, then this really just isn't that big a deal."

JC didn't say a word. He just squeezed the hand that he had never let go of, smiled at his friend and motioned with his head towards the still-filled dinner plate in a silent command for Lance to eat.


It was pretty much a fact that if Nick knew something, then Brian knew it, and vice versa. Howie had figured he might as well get it all over with at once and had joined in a game of one-on-one on the court, making the odds somewhat uneven. He had waited until they were all sweaty and exhausted and confused as to whose side he had been playing on before closing his eyes, leaning back against the court's fence and saying: "Nick, Bri, there's something we gotta talk about. Something I gotta say."

"Howie?" Brian squinted at his friend in the late-afternoon sun.

"Well, AJ and Kev, they saw this letter to me, and we were talking and-" Howie hated the way things never came out of his mouth sounding intelligent when it really mattered. He took a deep breath. "Look, I'm, I like guys. Gay, y'know?"

Nick's fingers slipped on the bottle he was holding and neon blue sports drink gurgled out in every direction over steaming asphalt. "Wha-what? Huh? Howie, you- What?"

Howie shrugged helplessly, certain that with Nick stuttering all over the place and Brian standing there, silent and fascinated by the texture of the basketball, nothing was going to come out right. Suddenly, Howie was throwing his hands in front of him to deflect the ball that was coming at him too quickly to catch. He wasn't fast enough and the ball bounced against his torso with bruising force. By the time Howie was done gasping for air, Brian's back was barely visible as he retreated from the court.

"Shit." Howie bit his lip and looked over at Nick, who was retrieving the basketball, looking as though it might bite him.

"You okay?" Nick didn't look at Howie as he asked the question and Howie thought that he might have been trying not to cry.

"Are you?" Howie countered.

"A little surprised. I mean, you've known, and you didn't tell us, and when I was twelve and Katie told me that she had found someone who would be around all the time to date you told me that I could cry in front of the guys, because there wasn't anything we needed to hide from each other. But you hid."

"Nick, maybe you missed this, but Brian just tried to kill me with the basketball."

"Brian'll get over himself, asshole. You just caught him off-guard. Did you want him to be like 'oh, that's great, me too?' Fuck you, Howie, he's always thought one thing about you and now he has to rethink it. Things'll be fine when he does."

"And you?"

Nick flung a hand back casually. "Doesn't change anything. You still love. I'm not gonna get all wack about the fact that your partner of choice won't have a rack."

Howie approached him hesitantly, "I'm sorry I let my fear be stronger than my trust in you."

Nick relented and reached out to hug him tightly. "I suppose that's an awfully big thing not to be afraid of. Just don't do it again."

And even though when Nick had first grown bigger than him it had made Howie feel slightly jealous, he was glad now that it was so easy to stay still and lose himself in the larger man's embrace.


Lance liked when they went to the smaller Orlando area hospitals. Justin was always in a good mood because they were home. It made JC happier to do nice things when there weren't cameras following, and those visits were always the quietest, the ones that none of them talked about in interviews. Chris got a high from being around the kids. Lance just liked the feeling of actually being able to see the faces of people he was singing to. He didn't mind the smell of disinfectant or the too-cheery pastel walls, so long as he could connect for a little bit.

They had stayed a long time on this visit. The kids had gone wild for the three songs they had planned, so the guys had shared in a moment of non-verbal communication and sang two more. Then Chris had spotted the Candyland box and challenged anyone who would play to a game. Justin had grabbed the Trouble board and started his own circle of contestants. Joey had wandered over to where all the model cars and trains were and set himself to helping a handful of kids build what looked to Lance like LA's highway system on crack. JC, unsurprisingly, had set up shop with a toy xylophone and some other safe-for-first-graders musical instruments. Lance, after surveying his choices, had found himself a spot at the coloring table, helping to trace hands and politely avoiding having to guess what pictures were supposed to represent.

After nearly an hour, all five of them had slowly extricated themselves from the room, with plenty of hugs and goodbyes and well-wishing. They were walking towards the exit closest to their cars when Chris waved off to his side and gave a short, "Yo."

The other guys turned to see what had attracted Chris's attention and found it in the form of a Backstreet Boy. Howie and Chris weren't close, but they knew each other from Valencia, and both men attempted to at least say hi when they met up at parties and other celebrity events.

Howie's face arranged itself into a surprised smile and he waved back, heading towards them. "Hey, what're you doing here?"

Chris grinned. "Singin' for the kiddies. And you? Without the posse, at that."

"Oh, there's a research facility here. It's a small one, but they've been doing some work that could, indirectly, end up relating back to Lupus. One of the docs said she'd talk me through it slowly, so I just got out of meeting with her."

"Cool. Listen, you wanna grab a cup of coffee with us? We're not scheduled for the rest of the day, so, if you've got the time, I'm up for it."

"Actually, that sounds good. Any place in particular?"

"I know somewhere you won't get bothered," Joey offered. "But I can't go, I promised some friends of mine that I'd help them move apartments after I got outta here."

"Yeah, and I'm scheduled for a phone call with Britney." Chris gave Justin a look, but the younger man just stared back. "Dude, I haven't talked with her in three days."

"I'm going to accompany the poor, deprived, lovelorn child home, because I swore I would get some writing done this afternoon and if I break that promise one more time I'm going to lose any self-respect I have left." JC had the grace to look apologetic as he made his excuse.

"Well, if you three are bailing, then I'm definitely gonna have to accompany, because Chris plus coffee minus chaperone is just a bad mix." Lance gave Chris a tiny shove. "That is, if it's okay?"

Joey gave Chris the address of the coffeehouse while both of them made fun of the fact that Lance still employed manners around them and then headed out behind JC and Justin.

"Uh, Lance?" Chris turned slightly towards the person he was addressing.


"Can you drive me home? I came with Justin."

"Yeah, that's fine. In fact, if y'all wanna ride with me to the coffee place, the hospital is on the way back to Chris's place, so I can just drop you off." Lance inclined his head at Howie.

"Works for me, let's go."


The coffeehouse was a hole in the wall that had the appearance of having craftily avoided FDA inspections for the last decade. Neither Lance nor Chris was really surprised, since Joey had a talent for finding the best food in the scariest looking places. He said it was an Italian thing. Justin said it was his extraordinary sense of bravery and adventure. Most of the time, Lance agreed with the latter assessment. Joey was a culinary Superman.

The clientele of "Stop and Smell the Beans" consisted of mostly college-aged kids who either didn't recognize them or were too caught up in their own perceived coolness to admit they could name a boyband member by sight. Lance didn't care so long as he could sit at the wobbly table that Chris had chosen, drink his well-made espresso with the "pound and a half" of sugar that he always added and got teased about by the other guys, talk with friends and pretend -- if just for an hour or so -- to have a slice of normality in his life.

Howie ordered a Chilean blend and left it black, Chris copied him but added about a cup of milk before he would even try his. Howie shook his head. "You're such a pansy white boy, Kirkpatrick."

"Are you insinuating something about my manliness, Dorough?" Chris drew himself up so that he was board stiff in the chair. Chris was actually taller than Howie, so it could have been intimidating if Chris hadn't been Chris, and not at all scary. "At least I didn't cause the place to have to re-order sugar." Chris pointed accusingly at Lance.

"Yeah, well, I'm willing to bet Howie could take me, so I'll just own up to being a pansy white boy and leave things be." Lance took a small sip from his drink, drawing back from the heat.

"The two of us could take him, he's just a little feller." Chris was near to whining.

"Said the pot." Howie was somehow managing to drink his coffee without looking like it was burning away every tastebud in his mouth.

Lance laughed. "I've never heard that one before."

Chris patted his head. "Lance was sheltered before he met us."

"I can just imagine what he's like now." Howie leaned back in his chair and ran assessing eyes over Lance, who just laughed again.

"I will have you know that, among other things, I am a raging nympho."

"Good little southern-boy gone bad, huh?" Howie thought for a moment and shook his head. "Nah, I don't see it."

Lance shrugged. "It was worth a try."

"Lance is afraid that all people see when they look at him is the cross." Every once in awhile, the reason Chris had wanted to major in psychology became evident.

"AJ thinks that all people see when they look at him are the tattoos."

Lance smirked. "Guilty, but they're sexy."

Things were silent for a moment as Howie fixed his stare on Lance and the object of that gaze froze up. Chris was about to speak and divert everyone's attention when Howie glanced away, saying softly, "Yeah, I can see that."


It took Chris less than three seconds after Lance had dropped Howie off at his car and made sure he got in to connect with what his mother called his "yenta roots." He never understood where she got that from, since, as far as he knew, there were no Jews anywhere on his family tree, but the description fit, so he just went along with it. "Howie thinks you're hot."

"Shut up, Chris." Lance kept his eyes on the road.

"I'm serious." He was, despite the fact that he was motivated more out of the way the two men had really seemed to enjoy each other's company and the fact that they would be able to understand each other's lifestyle, along with the amount of caution necessary in proceeding with any type of relationship, than any noticeable physical attraction between the two. Still, Howie had been sneaking glances at Lance when he thought the younger man was busy drinking or talking with Chris, so Chris was pretty positive he was right about his recently made statement.

"Chris, would you stop it already? Just because we think he's gay, and I do stress the word 'think,' and I'm gay does not mean we automatically go together. I mean, do you fit with every heterosexual woman you meet?"

"Lance, it's not like I'm trying to get you to exchange vows with him or anything, it's just that you're here and he's here and you haven't dated since G-d only knows when, or gotten laid in probably as long, and Howie's a nice guy, I know him and that makes the deranged part of me that feels like I should look out for you since I put this group together when you were only seventeen and so I've inherited you as a responsibility, feel slightly better."

"You want me to see him again so that you can feel better?"

Well, and, you know, me and the guys think you've been working too hard, that you need to get a life or something."

"Excuse me while I ponder the fact that C evidently thinks I need to get a life."

Chris laughed. "Yeah, okay, stones and glass houses."

Lance sighed. "We're only in town for another week."

"Just ask him as a friend. You need friends who aren't us, bud. I know you have your family and all, but you're not in Mississippi most of the time and they aren't here or wherever else we are either."

"Just friends."

"Yeah, y'know, someone you can talk to."

"I don't want you talking about this with the other guys and coming up with devious plans for us to end up together. It's dangerous enough when I decide to go out on a limb and flirt with a guy in a club, let alone decide to date someone. The fans don't even like it when you guys date women, and C and I already get death threats from people who just assume to know our sexual orientation." Lance knew that he hadn't meant to say all that, especially not with the amount of bitterness that had flooded his tone, but there it was and for the moment, everything seemed just a little bit better.

"I'm sorry." Chris was uncharacteristically still. "I didn't know that."

"Yeah, well, we told Sexual Chocolate, but we just didn't feel like there was any need to worry the rest of you. I've known people like the ones who send those letters all my life. They're just ignorant and scared."

"I swear we won't try and fix Howie and you up." Chris began to fidget again and smiled. "But, uh, if anything should happen, I'm sure as hell not gonna work too hard at dissuading you, either."


Howie got back to the house he had bought himself when Kevin and Brian had gotten married and left him to his own devices. He loved the house. It was solidly his in the way that few things were. He enjoyed the privacy of it too, away from the press and safe behind gates that only opened for key cards given out to those who actually lived in the neighborhood.

The solitariness of it got to him, though. Even after they had split up and gotten themselves five tour buses so that each Boy could have one, Howie spent most of his time on AJ's or inviting AJ to ride on his. If AJ was in the mood to hang alone, one of the other guys was inevitably up for some companionship.

Howie tossed his keys on the kitchen counter and picked up the phone to dial memory two.

"Yeah?" Came the slightly preoccupied answer from the other side of the line.

"You busy?"

"Nah, just watching TV. What's up?" The sound of AJ's television disappeared from the background.

"Wanna come over? I'll make you a margarita."

"A? As in, single?"

"Get yo' skinny, ugly ass over here."

"You're one to talk."



"I'm hanging up."

"I'll be there before the dial tone starts."

AJ made it over in the same amount of time that he usually did. It was the amount of time that told Howie the other man had casually broken at least six of the more important traffic rules. AJ opened the door with his own set of keys and did not pause before walking to the kitchen. He held his hand out. "My margarita?"

Howie handed him the iced beer mug with salt clinging to the rim. AJ took a couple of sips, looked at the glass approvingly and moved his eyes to Howie, who was cleaning out the lime-squeezer. "Where have you been all afternoon? I thought you were just gonna go to the hospital and then be back. I called you like three times. Once more and I was gonna start checking to make sure you hadn't been eaten by some ravenous fourteen-year-old chick."

"I had my cell-" Howie remembered turning it off while he was in the hospital so as not to affect any of the equipment. "Oh. Shit, I'm sorry. I turned it off while I was at the hospital and forgot to turn it back on."

"That doesn't answer my question."

"Yeah, actually, it's been kind of a weird afternoon." Howie dried his hands off and wandered into the den, AJ following. "I caught up with Chris Kirkpatrick -- him and the other guys were doing a performance there, pretty hush hush, because there wasn't a single camera. He, Lance and I ended up going out for coffee."

"I didn't know you guys spoke much."

"We don't, but he was free and I was free and Chris is cool, so it was nice."

"And Lance?"

"I'm sorry?"

"Well, you said Chris is cool, but you went out with both of them, so, how was Lance?"

Howie knew that this was why he had invited his friend over in the first place, but he wished he could remember why he hadn't had the foresight to make a margarita for himself. With a lot of tequila. "Um. Hot."

AJ raised an eyebrow, but stayed silent and Howie knew that the younger man wasn't going to talk until given more details. "He's smart. He does little polite things, like stir his sugar into the coffee counter-clockwise and then line the spoon up on the saucer so that it doesn't make a mess. He can take a joke. Sweet. Very, just, almost little-kid sweet, but without the naivety."

AJ licked thoughtfully at his salt and Howie couldn't resist saying what came out of his mouth next. "He thinks your tattoos are hot."

AJ threw his head back and drank the last gulp of margarita. "They are." He didn't even pause before asking, "Are you and Brian still not talking?"

"I think the more correct question would be, 'Is Brian still not talking to you?' In which case, the answer would be yes."

AJ rubbed the back of his neck. "So, your bandmate isn't talking to you and you're going all crushy on the enemy, am I writing the Cliff's Notes correctly?"

"You want me to be straight so Brian can be happy, AJ? Would that help?" Howie grabbed the margarita glass from his guest and headed into the kitchen where he had left the tequila on the counter. He poured some into the bottom of the glass, and gulped it down. AJ followed him in and pulled himself onto the countertop. Howie's voice was slightly husky from the aftereffects of the tequila. "Do you have any earthly idea how long it's been since I kissed someone? I miss that. It's not like I want to marry Lance. I want to talk with him. Share a piece of cake with him. Maybe exchange blowjobs, because I'd be willing to bet he hasn't gotten laid in about as long as me, which means he was probably five or something the last time. Y'know, Brian, self-fucking-righteous Brian, gets to go home to Leighanne, and Kevin has Kristin, and I'm pretty sure Nick is moving into something with this Mandah girl, and you go on and off with Amanda, splurging with the roadies and the club girls when that's in a down cycle. I haven't had a date since this band started. I've been too busy trying to make myself look straight so the band could be protected from its resident fag. Maybe Lance isn't the best or even safest choice I could've made, but at least I know he isn't gonna run and tell."

AJ reached out and grabbed Howie's ponytail. With light pressure, he pulled the smaller man to him. When Howie was standing directly in front of him, AJ rested his chin on Howie's head and hugged him as best he could without falling from the countertop. The guys in the band were generally touchy-feely with each other. Hands could go just about anywhere on someone else's body without being questioned and hugs were spontaneous, run-of-the-mill events. Worse than Brian's silence to Howie, was the other man's physical distance of late. Howie melted into AJ's embrace, letting the feel of his friend's fingers stroking down the tensed muscles of his back calm him. He was startled out of his trance by the ring of his phone.

Howie frowned, but pulled back from AJ and went to pick up the cordless. "Hello?"

"Hi, uh, is this Howie Dorough?"

"Who is this?"

"Oh, sorry, it's Lance Bass."

"Oh. It's me. Um, do you mind me asking how you got this number?"

"Chris had it, he said he didn't think you'd mind him giving it to me if I promised to shred whatever he wrote it down on and eat what was left."

"And have you?"

"Can't you tell I'm speaking with my mouth full? Almost done..."

Howie chuckled. "So, would it be rude of me to ask if you called just to chat?"

"Chatting's good, but I was kinda hoping we could do it over lunch sometime, or something." Lance let out a short breath.

"Lunch, huh? I made it from coffee to lunch all in one day."

"Chris says Backstreet Boys are easy."

"Do you always listen to Chris?"

"First time ever, should I have kept with my previous trend?"

Howie looked across the room to where AJ was still sitting, twisted slightly so as to watch his friend. Between Chris and the mention of lunch, AJ had figured out what was being said and by whom on the other end of the line. At Howie's slightly unsure look, AJ mouthed "fuck Brian" and turned back around.

"Nah, letting Chris be right once or twice in his life is probably safe. So, where are you taking me?"


"You have a personal vendetta against that pot, or something?" Leighanne leaned against the counter in her cousin-in-law's kitchen and looked questioningly at the pot that Kevin had been attacking with a brillo pad for minutes on end.

Kristin looked over her shoulder from where she was putting plates back in the cabinet. "Sweetie, I think it's clean." She glanced over to the other woman, "Leigh, do you think Kev and I could talk for a moment?"

The two women exchanged glances that told Kevin they'd been talking behind their husband's backs. Normally it would have worried him, but at this point, he was just hoping they'd figured out some way to alleviate the tension between him and his cousin. He heard the door to the kitchen swing shut and felt Kristin's arms come around him from behind. She was holding a towel and he took it to dry his hands on before tossing it aside. "What does Leigh have to say about all this?"

To her credit, Kristin didn't try to deny it. "That she catches him picking up the phone and starting to dial a number and then hanging up at least twice a day. That she got in the shower with him one morning and noticed that his eyes were a little too red for water to be the only thing running down his face. That she hears him pacing at three in the morning. She's worried and he's silent. Nick's not talking to him, you know? Gave up after Brian yelled at him about Howie going to hell. Nick said something about him being a 'self-righteous dick with his head so far up his ass that he'd have to pay millions for some surgeon to retrieve it.' Leigh overheard, Brian hasn't even told her they had a fight yet. AJ's just ignoring him, which Leigh thinks is probably for the best because AJ isn't always so good about talking things out rather than just getting them out. Brian's scared shitless that you're gonna get mad too."

"I'm disappointed." Kevin sighed and turned to face his wife, kissing her gently. "I told Howie that Brian would come around, that he understood differences, that he was bad at being hateful. Everything I knew about Brian, everything I have seen in him since the day he was born...I don't know how to reconcile those things with the person he's being right now."

"Have you told him *that*?"

Kevin shook his head in the negative.

"Well then, babe, I think you're talking to the wrong person." She returned his kiss, every bit as gentle as he had been, and pulled back from him, to take his hand and lead him into the other room. She left him standing near to the door as she disappeared back into the kitchen, saying, "Leigh, would you mind helping me finish the dishes?"

When Leighanne had brushed past Kevin and into the kitchen, the older cousin stared down at the younger one, still seated at the dining room table. He took the seat nearest to Brian and watched as the younger man resisted the urge to fidget. "I understand your faith, Bri. I do. The fact that I don't have a tattoo that declares mine or that I don't have the drive to mention it as much, doesn't mean it isn't as strong." Kevin glared his cousin into silence upon seeing him take a breath to speak. Brian closed his mouth. "I have prayed year after year, for you, for Kristin, for myself, for the guys, and G-d has never once let me down. Not when it mattered. So, yeah, my faith is fundamental. But my faith has always been about helping others. I've never once prayed for someone to be hurt. Not the guys who picked on me for singing in high school, not the first girl who broke my heart, not Lou, not anyone. Faith, to me, is always about the positive and if your faith causes destruction in some sense, well, then He's not up there supporting that."

Kevin was silent for a second, trying to place all his words in the correct order so that Brian would listen and understand. "I was always so proud of you. I was proud of the way you survived after the doctors said you wouldn't. I was proud of the way you treated others, the way you would ask the ugliest girl in the class to a dance so that she could have a date, even when three or four of the prettiest were after you. I was proud of your talent. But I cannot be proud of the way you're acting now. I told Howie that you'd take a while, but that you'd accept, because you had too big a heart to suddenly cut off someone that you considered family over something he couldn't change. It hurts me that I was wrong."

Brian's voice was shaky and there was the glimmer of water in his eyes, but he was not crying. "If your faith is so strong, how can you just disregard what the bible tells you? How could you be proud of me if I betrayed the things I most fervently believe in for the sake of a man?"

Kevin bit his lip and didn't answer directly. "Brian, when you started drinking and weren't really aware of your own limits, who was the one who stayed with you in hotel bathrooms all night and kept clean towels at ready supply for you? Who brought you a present every single time he came to visit you in the hospital? Who consistently loans you his favorite shirts because you always somehow like them better than the ones you bought yourself? Who made Nick apologize to you for trying to steal your girlfriend when he got old enough to be sexy and jealous, and then made both of you realize what the actual problem was? Who fixed-"

"Howie! Alright, Kev, Howie did all those things. Howie is a fucking great friend and I miss him. Is that what you wanna hear? Huh? That I miss my friend so much that I get nauseated every time I think that it's probably my fault because I've got this hang up? But I can't just ignore that I think his choice is wrong. I can't condone that. No more than I could condone someone killing someone. It's just wrong." Brian's voice went high when he yelled and could be almost painful to listen to, but the anger felt good to Kevin, it felt like progress.


"Because it's wrong to spill your seed, because men and women are created to fit together." Brian reasons spilled out in frantic, desperate spurts and Kevin felt like there was something he was missing. When Brian talked about G-d, it was easy to believe in Him, for just a second, because his conviction was so strong. These words were weak, insignificant and Kevin was sure that he just had to breach the surface to find what was true for Brian, what his silence was about.

"So, you've never used a condom or masturbated?" Kevin continued while Brian opened and shut his mouth, searching for something to say. "And because no children can come of a non-heterosexual union, that makes love wrong? Love, unless it is accepted, is incorrect? Am I gettin' this?"

"I-" Brian cleared his throat and tried again, "Of course it isn't-" It was only a second after he stopped that the sob broke from him and Kevin was off his chair and pulling Brian up into his arms, clenching tightly. Words were tumbling from Brian and Kevin strained to listen, because these were the words that would be real.

"At first, it was just...I couldn't...I was taught it was wrong, and that was all. But I missed him...it had been so long though, by then...and...I was afraid...so I held on tighter to my...convictions...stupid, frickin' convictions. I was such...an asshole. Love...I sing about love for millions of dollars." Brian looked up, the crying having slowed a bit. "I'm not sure I understand a thing about it though. Because I love Howie, and I did this to him because of something he loves, and that just doesn't make sense when you say it like that, does it?"

"Damn, Bri, you've never been afraid to apologize to someone before, why now?"

"Because I've never let things go this far, or done something this wrong. I mean, Howie's Catholic and he was able to accept himself, and that's bigger than accepting someone else, so how do I justify what I did?"

"It's not like Howie woke up okay with it one day, it took him a long time. He'll understand you takin' your own time. Besides, have you ever, and I do mean ever, known D to hold a grudge? I would pay the average ticket price to one of our concerts to see that. 'Specially 'gainst one of us."

"Point taken."

"So you'll talk to him?"

"I'll call him tonight. I'll even leave a message if he's not there just so I can't get out of it. Promise."

That was all Kevin needed, because Brian's promises were more solid than written contracts. He nodded. "'Kay, then we might as well go break up the estrogen fest in the other room before they start plottin' things other than group reconciliation."

Brian shuddered and followed Kevin docilely to the kitchen.


Howie woke up panicked, because a phone ring in the middle of the night could be AJ too drunk to get home and unable to find his wallet, or it could be somebody in the hospital. He reached for and quickly found the phone without the aid of sight and a sleep-affected "hullo?" tumbled from his lips.

"Howie." The voice on the other end of the line was small, not a voice that you would have picked to be one of the lead singers for an international pop group. "Uh, I'm sorry, it's really late, I'll call back-"

"Bri, bri, shh, is something wrong? What's going on?" Howie had wanted to stay mad, desperately. He had wanted to shout all those things he had told AJ that afternoon in Brian's face, maybe even hit him for good measure. Or at least, that's what he thought he'd wanted. But now Brian was on the phone and sounded scared and the only thing Howie cared about was having his friend back. He cursed himself silently and quickly for being a pansy ass before giving up and trying not to be obscenely happy about the fact that Brian had called him.

"I'm sorry." Brian words were carefully said, as if delicate. "I'm sorry. I may need to say that a couple of more times, but I'm really sor-"

"Stop." Howie heard a sob on the other end and realized that Brian had probably misunderstood his intention in stopping the increasingly aimless apology. "Bri, I need to know that this isn't a spur of the moment, it's-two-twenty-three-in-the-morning-and-I'm-a-little-loopy impulse. Like, I need to know that the fact that I have a date on Wednesday is okay. Or that when you guys talk about women backstage and I add a comment about a guy I saw, that you aren't gonna go back into this shell-shock, because I fucking miss you and I can't do this again."

"You think I can? When did you go crazy, Dorough?" Brian gave a small, uneasy chuckle. "Kevin says it took time for you to accept this about yourself. It took time for me too, and then I was scared that I'd taken too much time. We got home late from Kevin's tonight and I was just gonna wait and call you tomorrow, but then I couldn't sleep, so, I had to call -- sorry I woke you up, I guess that isn't the best way to go about an apology, huh?"

"I'm glad you woke me up. I'm glad I didn't have to wait any longer to talk to you again."

"Me too. But now that this is all done, I'm falling asleep standing up, so I'm gonna hang up on you. Is it okay if I drop by some time this week?"

"When have you ever had to ask? 'Night B-Rok." Howie hung up the phone without waiting for a response, it was nice just knowing there would have been one.


Lance had been willing to tell Howie what time he would be picking the older man up, but not where they were going. The most Howie knew was that the dress code was casual. In accordance with that, he had worn jeans that showed off his ass and a t-shirt that clung tightly enough to more than hint at the ripples underneath at the same time that the color highlighted his eyes. He had let his hair dry naturally into the curls, but then pulled it back, so that the unruliness was just hinted at. His only jewelry consisted of a sports watch. The guys, who had been filled in by AJ about the upcoming "date," had all found reasons to drop by that morning.

Brian had been the first, still on a touching kick from having stayed away for so long. He fussed with Howie's hair until the subject of his experiments physically restrained him, at which point Brian just hugged his friend, apologized for being a spaz and told Howie to be careful. Howie waited to laugh until after Brian had left.

Kevin and Nick had shown up together, and both tried to act like it was the most casual social call they'd ever made. Nick was a horrendous actor though, and he finally just blurted out, right in the middle of Kevin's animated recounting of the previous evening's Marlins game, "That shirt's too sexy, go back upstairs and change it." He looked surprised for a moment before amending, "Uh, I mean, well, I just don't want-" He broke off at Kevin and Howie's laughter, muttering under his breath about assholes and being able to be protective too. Howie kissed Nick on the cheek and thanked him for his concern while surreptitiously taking the package of condoms Kevin was holding out for him. He rolled his eyes. "I'm not a first-date kinda boy, Kev."

Kevin shrugged. "I used to be. Just tryin' to be helpful."

Howie had managed to usher Kevin and Nick out only moments before he heard the lock turn yet again and recognized the clunky tread of AJ and his cowboy boots. He didn't turn around at the low whistle and sucking in of breath that came from behind him.

"And here I was worried you might have lost your touch." AJ handed him a package of condoms and Howie ostentatiously placed it next to Kevin's. He silently prayed that Lance didn't come into the kitchen.

"Nick says the shirt is too sexy, that I should go upstairs and change it."

AJ burst into laughter. "That boy is going to make a great mother someday."

"Yeah, well, poor kid never had much of a chance, not with all of us." The doorbell rang over his last few words and Howie found himself racing AJ to get it. AJ was faster. He opened the door, sprawling in the doorway so that Howie was almost completely blocked from the view and smiled at Lance.

"I hear you think my tattoos are sexy."

Howie shoved AJ out of the way, smiled at Lance and motioned for him to follow while bounding down the steps that led to the driveway. He yelled over his shoulder to AJ. "Lock up when you leave, Bone!"

When he reached the car he turned to make sure Lance had followed. He had. Howie rolled his eyes, "Sorry about him."

Lance shrugged. "Eh, you've never spent anytime around any of my guys except Chris, trust me, I'll bet we could swap stories for hours and still not have a champion as to which band has more obnoxious members."

Howie liked the way Lance's voice got sarcastic and tender all at once when he poked fun at his friends. Lance nodded to the car, "Get in, let's go, it's a bit of a drive." His grin was mischievous and Howie made a show of being scared, but got into the car anyway.

Lance fiddled with the radio for several moments, looking to Howie for any type of reaction. He finally settled on a jazz station when Howie offered up the opinion that jazz was nice background music. Lance countered by saying he knew people who couldn't see straight when jazz was playing, let alone hold a conversation.

"Yeah, well," Howie threw his hands out in a dismissive gesture. "I guess I'm not that deep."

"Me neither, evidently." Lance smiled in a distracted way. "So you told AJ I liked his tattoos?"

"I think we might as well just make that the code word for being gay. 'Hey, see that guy over there? He likes AJ's tattoos.'"

"It could work. A modern-day, boyband inflected polari."


Lance gave the tiniest of blushes. "When I first came out to the guys, JC got me this book on the history of homosexuality. C does that, a lot, gets us books. It's like his version of being a responsible parent, or something. Even more so with Justin and me. Anyway, polari is this code that gay men in London during the late sixties and early seventies used to speak to each other. A lot of the words are just kind of mutated, but there are made up ones and references and everything. I dunno, I thought it was kinda cool, just 'cuz it was something that only they had."

Howie was enchanted on several levels. "First of all, you managed to stare AJ down while he's striking his 'I'm sexier than G-d himself' pose and telling you that he knows you think his tattoos are sexy without even blinking, but you just blushed over the fact that you read. That's...fascinating. Secondly, that is cool. We'll just have to collect phrases as we go to add to the new, improved polari."

"Sounds good." Lance concentrated as he switched lanes. "Joey informs me that I pretty much suck at flirting, despite his best attempts to help."

"You get too worried about it."

"How is that?"

"Well, for instance, I was gonna call you if you hadn't called first, and I haven't gone on a date in nearly seven years, maybe a little bit more, so it's not like I'm looking to be impressed, just to have a good time, but you're worried enough to point out that this might be an area of insufficiency, when I'm thinking that any losses you take in the flirting department are probably going to be balanced out by the way you handled AJ or the fact that you say intelligent things or what that outfit does for your eyes, which are insanely beautiful. In other words, it's just you and me Lance, no cameras, no fans, not even any bandmates, just two guys who badly need a date."

"I told my guys this wasn't a date."

"Did they believe you?"

"Are you kidding? I'm the scheduling deity of the group, I say where we go and you hear the pitter patter of everyone rushing to get there, but the minute I make a statement about anything outside of business, it's like open season for jokes, doubts and dismissals." Lance had that tone of fond tolerance Howie was completely taken in by. Lance's next words were grudging. "Granted, they probably had reason for doubt this time 'round. How 'bout you? What did you tell your guys?"

"AJ was there when you called. I mentioned it to Brian, but the rest of them pretty much just found out through the grapevine."

"What did they say? I mean, courting the enemy and all."

"Bri tried to fix my hair eighty-four times and then told me to be careful, Nick disapproved of my evidently racy choice of clothing, Kevin and AJ brought me...uh-"

"Yeah, Joey did that for me. Jayce got all 'uh, can I help plan it?' Chris practically dialed your number and Justin soliloquized about how if you and I got together between me and him we would be making great strides in the field of intra-popstar love."

"Man forget having a private life away from the fans..."

"I hear you boy."

"Yeah, jeez, where are we going?"

"Uh, did I mention that I actually let Jayce help plan this?"

"No, just what did the serious one stir up?"

"It's closer than...Cuba."

"You're just brimming with reassurance."

"That's me, Mr. Reassurance."

"There isn't an r or an e in 'N Sync."

"Yeah, well, that's why I needed a pseudonym."

"Naturally, 'Lansten'."

Lance winced.


"So, is it you or Chasez who's the romantic?"

Lance stared contentedly out over the side of the rented boat. "A little bit of both. He gets more chances to put it to use, though."

Howie joined him at the railing. "When'd you learn how to sail?"

"When I first got out here and started up with the group, we all went jet skiing one day for this shoot. I had the time of my life, ended up doing it whenever I got the chance. So, Joey, who is the all-time champion of gift-giving, gave me sailing lessons for my eighteenth birthday, figuring it was just being out on the water that was half the thrill for me. He was right."

"Nick's like that. Total waterbaby."

"You hungry?"

"A little."

"Well, I did say this was gonna be for lunch." Lance walked over the coolers he had brought from the car and began unpacking items onto the on-deck table.

"Sure you brought enough?" Howie joked as package after package came out.

"Joey ordered. Joey is a sure bet for good food. He's also a sure bet for too much food. He says his eyes are bigger than his stomach. Chris has many a comment about that particular expression in regards to Joey's appetite."

"I'll bet."

Lance finished setting up and they sat down. Both men found that they were decidedly more hungry than they had previously thought, trying to be polite as they tore through the various offerings on the table. When they were finished, sprawling in their chairs, too full to do much more than groan at each other, Lance hesitantly spoke up. "I forgot to mention that I brought dessert."

"That's not funny."

"I think we should wait."

"Yeah, exploding sucks."

"Depends on the type of explosion."

Howie smiled in appreciation of the innuendo. "Lance the nympho reappears."

"I think nympho should be our new word for 'good little Southern boy."

"No fucking way in hell am I referring to Brian or Kevin as 'nympho.'"

"You have a point, I'll work harder on that one. Howie?"


"Can you move yet?"

"I could try. Why?"

"You know anything about sailing?"

"I'm not telling you. You'll laugh at me. Everyone says they won't and then come those oh-so-subtle questions. Geez, D, how'd you manage to grow up in Orlando and not learn how to sail? What, you're half-Irish and land bound?" Howie made mock-petulance sexy.

Lance's hand was soft against his upper arm and Howie slid his eyes open to see the taller man standing above him. "I'm not laughing." And his deep, accent-tinted voice sounded like anything but laughter. "C'mon, I'll show you some of the basics, make it so that nobody else is either."

When learning to sail came in a voice like that -- when anything came in the voice like that -- refusing was just the final step on the road to idiocy. Howie was no idiot.

It was nearly an hour later that Lance took Howie's hand and lead him away from all the rigging to the lower deck of the boat, out of the sun and away from where they could be seen by passing boats. Lance opened it and took out a container along with one spoon. Thoughtfully, he scooped some of the chilled crème brulee and pressed the spoon gently against Howie's lips. Howie opened dutifully and sucked at the creamy treat, flicking his tongue out to swipe his lips after swallowing. Lance forgot to feed himself the next bite.

After three spoonfuls, Howie decided the dessert was good enough that Lance should have a taste and gently pried the carton and spoon away from his date to take over the task of feeding. Lance had none of Howie's technique in making seduction seem casual. Howie supposed it was a good thing that the movement of the younger man's throat as he swallowed, the look of untainted pleasure on his face and the way his eyes glowed in the shade of the covered deck made that fact unimportant at best.

"This is so good." Lance gasped, between bites.

"Oh yeah."

When they had very painstakingly scooped the last bit of the dessert out of the carton, it was only then that Howie realized they had never once touched during the entire exercise. He was on his way to feeling disappointed when Lance surreptitiously swept the back of his hand across his lips and grinned sheepishly at being caught. Howie didn't bother keeping his thought about that silent. "That was good for me. Was it good for you?"

When Lance wouldn't let him off the boat before scheduling another date, he was pretty sure he had his answer.


Lance had expected JC to be at his house when he got back. JC worried. He worried about album sales and what shoes to wear in the morning and how his answers on radio interviews sounded. He worried about whether Chris was eating too much junk food and over the way Justin got all mopey about missing Britney. It was a vicious cycle, overall, because all of his worrying sent him into bouts where the thought of food made his stomach churn and all his concentration had to be redirected into remembering how to breathe.

Unsurprisingly, JC had been worried about the date and anxious to hear everything immediately upon Lance's return. Chris's presence at his house wasn't all that shocking, either, considering the older man's continued interest in the affair. Lance was a little speechless, though, to find all four of his bandmates sitting around his table, eating the cookies his mom had sent him.

"Don't you guys have your own mothers?" Lance threw the car keys on the table and took the free chair.

"Poofu!" Chris took another cookie and placed it next to the three already in front of him. "We were waiting for you."

"Really? Is that why you chose my house to hang out at?"

Justin stuck his tongue out at Lance for that, which was only mildly disgusting considering he was mid-cookie. Lance didn't mind because it made JC, who was not eating, smile.

Joey minded. "Ew, Jup. Chew, not spew."

"Jesus guys," JC rolled his eyes. "I wanna know if the Backalley Boy treated Lance right."

"Ohh." Justin's eyes widened in understanding. "C wants details."

"You're getting C and me confused again, young one." Joey smacked Justin lightly upside the head.

"Dudes, shut up." Chris had escaped from his chair and was now pacing while keeping his eyes on Lance. "So? So, so, so?"

Lance thought about drawing it out, but JC, who was more stressed out than usual by the thought of their first Jive produced album being released shortly and thoughts of the tour that would follow, wasn't smiling anymore. "We had a good time together."

"Getting real descriptive on us there, Lance." Joey rolled his eyes.

"There was no sex involved, Joe, you can leave now and not miss anything," Lance retorted.

"Was there kissing?" Justin had nearly crawled up on the table to get closer to Lance.

"No." Justin looked disappointed, so Lance gave a flicker of a smile and said in a tone that made his voice just a bit lower than was normal, "There was crème brulee."

JC had come up with the idea for that, and was therefore in on the joke. "You wild thing you, Lance." He picked up a cookie. "Did he ask you on another date?"

"Not precisely, but he asked to plan the next one."

"And when is this next rendezvous, considering that we're outta here in four days? Tell me you guys didn't leave it open." Joey's tone was stuck between sarcastic drawl and eager inquirer.

"I'm an amateur, Joey, not an idiot. We're having dinner on Friday."

"Perfect opportunity for a goodnight kiss." Justin stole one of the cookies Chris had laid out.

"What is it with you and kissing?" Chris attempted to wrestle the cookie back.

"It's fun."

"I'm beginning to think I may have to chat with Britney about technique." Lance grinned.

Justin grinned right back. "Not a bad idea."


Lance got back from his run Thursday morning to hear the sound of the phone ringing inside his house. Quickly, he unlocked the back door and grabbed the nearest phone. "Hello?"

"Either there's someone there with you or you put your phone in a really hard to get to location."

Lance laughed in between panted breaths. "You caught the end of my run. What's up?"

"I was just wondering, about tomorrow night, would you mind if I made it an all-night event?"

Lance straightened up from the stretching he had started. "Um, Howie, I gotta tell ya-"

"Oh, wait, no, that came out wrong." Howie laughed. "Nothing racy. It's just that where I wanna go, you don't get the full effect unless you stay until morning."

"Mysterious." Lance dropped back into the stretch. "Okay."

"Good. Do you have a sleeping bag?"

"Somewhere around here, yeah."

"Bring it and wear ratty clothes. I'll pick you up around five."

"See ya then."



Lance climbed out of the car to stretch his legs, took a quick, if awed glance around and shouted back to Howie, who was busy retrieving their stuff from the trunk, "Where are we?"

Howie poked his head out from behind the car, "Kevin bought this place for all of us. It's a getaway, I guess you could say." He disappeared again but kept speaking loud enough for Lance to hear, "Nick wanted to build a cabin or something out here, but we all thought that would ruin it. Brian was the one who figured out that his other half had never been camping and remedied the problem. When they came back, Nick was threatening to castrate anyone who thought about planting a permanent structure in this area."

"I think I can sympathize." Lance tore his eyes away from the acres of grass and trees and lake water and went to help Howie.

Howie threw him a pack of stakes. "Know how to pitch a tent?"

"You're kidding, right? Being a Cub Scout was like being star of the football team when I was in elementary school. Besides, my dad took some friends and I on a canoeing trip down the Mississippi for a week when we were in middle school."

"So, can I ask you a personal question?" The smile on Howie's lips hinted that it wasn't going to be that intense. "Were you cool as a kid?"

"I was a boy who looked like a girl and enjoyed singing in the middle of a hick town. What do you think, Dorough? Doesn't mean I didn't try." Lance slid a tent pole through the appropriate eyehole of the tent and connected it up with the pole for the opposite side. "You?"

"Kinda the same deal, with the added advantages of being painfully short and only half Puerto-Rican, half White." Howie shrugged. "It was okay, though, because I was pretty close with my family, even then, which wasn't all that cool, either, but whatever. Then AJ came along and I didn't need anything else."

Both men stepped back from the newly-erected tent and Lance stepped around it so that he could see Howie. "I like your height."

Howie raised an eyebrow. "You're into midgets?"

Lance nodded solemnly. "Yeah, but Chris is taken."

Howie tried and failed to keep a straight face after that. "And Brian?"

"Two nymphos, one relationship, bad idea."

It was a long while before either of them had enough time between laughter to actually speak.


Lance woke up before dawn the next morning to the sound of wind sweeping its way across the tent's surface and quietly made his way outside. He was sitting on the damp ground, watching the east and thinking about how easy it was to be with Howie when he felt a pair of arms and legs and the warmth of an opened sleeping bag envelop him. "Morning, Sweet D."

Howie snuggled in closer. "No Latin Lover for me this morning, huh?"

"Do they really call you that?"

"Which one?"

"Either, both."

"Sweet D, yeah, sometimes, mostly Nick and Brian. Latin Lover, that's all AJ and only when he's being facetious."

"Hmm. Thanks for bringing me out here. I appreciate you trusting me like that."

The sun was starting to rise, so Howie didn't say anything, just let his chin rest on Lance's shoulder and watched. When the sky was fading from near-neon pink to pastel tinged blue, Lance whispered, "Would you mind if I kissed you?"

Howie was barely able to form the word "no," but Lance heard and understood and didn't waste a minute before twisting around and touching Howie's lips to his. Howie let go of the sleeping bag in favor of grabbing onto Lance and both men fell backwards onto the released cushioning. The sky was a bright, cloudless blue by the time either of them thought about moving.


Three weeks later


They were in California, which meant that Chris was spending every spare moment of his life with Dani. Joey, though he would never admit it, got lonely when this happened and tended to try and draft the other guys into a spree of nightly clubbing. JC generally went along both in order to look out after Joey and to get the chance to dance without having to worry about synchronization with four other people. Lance joined in for the first few nights and then stopped when the thought of having to flirt with or grind against another woman caused him to be physically ill. Sometimes he missed "being" with Danielle Fishel. It was easier to get rid of someone when she thought he was involved.

He came home early on the fourth evening and knocked on Justin's door. Justin had pleaded exhaustion and stayed home that night. Lance thought that mostly Justin got tired of the fact that, with him, people didn't seem to care that he was honestly intent on being monogamous. There was a moment where Lance waited for Justin to check the peephole and then the door opened cautiously. Justin looked guiltily at Lance. "Can you keep a secret?"

"No. What's a secret?"

Justin rolled his eyes, shut the door and gestured to the bed behind him. "That is."

Lance broke into a grin, crossed the room in three steps and crushed the secret to him in a big hug. "Hey Brit, whatcha doin' here?"

"I signed a new product, just happened to be out here doing shoots for them for a few days. Got lucky."

He let her go and she settled back against Justin who was leaning back on the headboard. "Uh huh." Britney could play airhead to the hilt and nobody, not from the people who handled her wardrobe to the guys she hired to deal with all her contracts, ever knew they had been manipulated until well after and sometimes not even then. It wasn't that she was deceitful, she just knew what she wanted and was aware that people don't listen to eighteen year old girls, not even when they're making millions in their own right.

Britney gave him a look of mock innocence. "Well, I may have mentioned that this was the only week I thought would work, with rehearsals and all."

Justin pulled her up to where her ear met his lips. "I love you." The words were too quiet for Lance to hear, but she always got the same expression when he said it. It was an expression that said she knew and was surprised all at once. It was an expression that said "ditto" without her having to verbalize it.

A phone rang and they all jumped. Britney giggled. "I think that's you, Lance."

Lance picked up his cell. "Yes?" He hadn't identified himself on the phone since the time a couple of fans had gotten ahold of the number and terrorized him until he could get a new one.

"Do you have any idea how stupid I looked buying a copy of this month's Bop with you guys on the cover?"

Lance laughed, "Probably about as stupid as I looked buying the Tiger Beat with you guys. One sec, k?" Lance held the phone at his side and said to the two people in the room with him, "I was gonna stop interrupting soon anyway."

Justin snickered. "Damn, Lansten, seventeen phone calls in three weeks, pretty soon he's gonna be scheduling shoots around you."

"You're the one who's counting." Lance leaned over and pecked Britney on the cheek. "Keep him out of trouble, wouldja?"

"Sure thing, tell Howie hi."

Lance shook his head at Justin, "You wanted to know if *I* could keep a secret?"

She pouted. "Don't trust me?"

Lance left without answering, because they all knew he did. He walked quickly to his room and shut the door behind him, leaning up against it and bringing the phone to his ear. "Hey, sorry."

"Not a problem. Where were you? Was that a girl?"

"Yeah, Britney. She says hi."

"Oh. She knows?"

"Evidently. I'm not surprised, Justin sucks at keeping stuff from her." Lance walked to his bed and fell onto it. "Thanks for the cards. You're better at this whole keeping-in-touch thing than I am."

"Lance, I got four emails from you yesterday, we just have different styles."

"Yeah, sorry about that, I kept forgetting stuff."

"The fourth one was waxing poetic about the finer points of butter pecan ice cream."

"Hey, that was importa- Okay, you got me, I miss you."

"Yeah, me too."

"Can I ask you a stupid question?"

"Next to some of the things Nick seems to need to know on a daily basis, I'm sure you'll sound like Einstein."

"Are you, um... Am I... Well, sometimes I don't know what to call you or us and I was wondering-"

"Does the thought of me being your boyfriend scare you?"

"Only in the 'echoes of a Baptist upbringing' way, not in the commitment way. You?"

"Same, exchanging Baptist for Catholic. But I think I should point out that we've only known each other for less than a month and we probably won't get to see each other much."

"Unless I seduce one of the guys over to my way of thinking or pick my way through the crew, there's not really anyone I'll get to see much. As far as the time issue, it's only like a day less than a month and it's been one of the best of my life. So, getting back to the point -- I can call you my boyfriend, around the band?"

"I think that would make me happy."

"Oh good."


A month later


Jive threw a party to celebrate the record breaking sales of NSA's first week on shelves. Most of the studio's artists were out of town handling publicity for themselves or otherwise occupied, so it was mainly administrative personnel with a smattering of the signed acts. The only member of the group that hadn't complained about going was Justin and that was because Jive had flown Britney in for the occasion. Chris had managed to cajole Dani into coming out to handle some FuMan logistics and then conveniently scheduled her trip for that weekend. Joey had begged a favor off Kelly in exchange for the new Dior dress she had been eyeing for months and JC had convinced Bobbie that it would be a good place to be industry-wise.

Lance came by himself, having decided against flying Meredith out. He spotted Justin and Britney with Chris and Dani and made his way over, having to stop a few times to chat with people whose faces he could just barely remember. When he got close enough, Dani reached out to pull him in the rest of the way and kissed his cheek. "Hey you."

"Hey yourself. Are you keeping him in line?" Lance gestured to Chris.

"What are you talking about?" Chris protested. "I'm the mature, responsible one here. Why, just minutes ago, I prevented the infants from making a scene."

"Uh huh. You probably encouraged them and Dani had to handle damage control all by her lonesome." Lance shook his head disparagingly at Britney and Justin who wore twin smiles of satisfaction. Chris's expression told Lance that his assessment had been correct.

"Was Meredith busy?" Britney had a thoughtful look that Lance preferred not to have directed at him, since it generally meant she was plotting something.

"Dunno, I just didn't feel like dragging her out here for this." Britney raised an eyebrow and Lance responded in kind. "It's not the same as for you and you know it."

Joey and Kelly chose that moment to sidle up behind Chris. Joey held out a wine glass to Lance. "You're here, the party can begin."

Lance was careful not to gulp. "Evenin', Kelly."

She tilted her head in reply. "Good tactic. If you ignore him, he goes away."

Chris shook his head. "That's an urban legend, I've been testing the theory for five years now."

Lance finished the wine. "I hate to point this out, but we really should go make nice."

Chris made a face. The twitch of Justin's mouth told Lance that the younger man wanted to but wasn't going to give into the temptation. Lance turned while trying not to be bitter about the fact that everyone else had a partner-in-crime.

Near to two hours later, when he had told all of his "polite-company" jokes at least once and gotten a summary of approximately ten people's life stories, Lance found his way to where JC and Bobbie had parked themselves at the bar and took up the empty chair right next to them.

JC raised a glass to his arrival. "I suck at this."

Lance didn't even think about lying. "You have other gifts."

This did not appease JC. "Right now, I'd trade." Bobbie smiled sympathetically and patted his shoulder. She was a master at party socialization. She could make it so that people never realized that JC was near to tears of discomfort at these things, and consistently did. The first time Lance had seen her do it was right after the two had started dating, Joey having slipped her JC's cell number when the latter mentioned that he thought she was cute. Joey had a history of running interference for JC and Justin with women when they got too shy. While this seemed like a bad idea on the surface, it had worked out considerably well in the early days of both Bobbie and Britney. Luckily, Bobbie wasn't shy. They had been out on a few dates when JC had mentioned to her that he had an affair he had to go to, an industry thing, and she would probably be bored, but... Bobbie had replied with a polite, "I'd be delighted," and proceeded to charm JC with her ability to make not only herself but him as well look good at small talk.

At the moment Bobbie was silent, looking over at Lance. "How goes it, Hollywood?"

Lance grimaced at the reference to his own talent for schmooze. "It goes."

JC glanced at his friend. "Why'd you come alone?"

Lance shrugged. "Obstinancy. They weren't kidding when they said that particular trait doesn't hurt anyone but yourself."

"You self-injuring again, Lansten? I told you I was gonna have to kick your ass if I found you falling into destructive habits." Chris wandered up, evidently having lost Dani to a studio-exec on the way to the bar. She was walking up there now, glaring at his back.

Lance kept a straight face as he answered. "I would be worried, but I think she's gonna break you before you have a chance to get to me."

Dani was right behind Chris as she growled, "Damn right," causing her boyfriend to start forward. Lance allowed himself a smile at that.

"I think, actually, that I have the job of defending your honor, not the lady, lovely though she may be." Lance would have thought he was imagining the voice behind him uttering those words if the utterly blank look on JC's face hadn't suddenly made much more sense.

Lance turned around and tamped down forcefully on the urge to drag the man behind him into a welcoming kiss. "Aren't you supposed to be out sabotaging sales, or something?"

"The rest of my guys are taking care of that, I'm the decoy." Howie smiled so guilelessly that Lance was tempted to believe him.

"Hello, decoy."

"Hello. Congratulations."

Lance twisted his lips into a look of dissatisfaction. "You're late."

"And you're evidently impossible to please."

Justin laughed. "That's our boy." His voice dropped to a low murmur. "I think if we start leaving one at a time, Lance first, couples in the middle and Howie last, we can make our move to get out of here."

"Why do I have to go last?" Howie looked mildly petrified by the idea.

"Because you were the last one to get here and because if Lance goes first and you go last, the likelihood of anyone thinking anything of you being here is small. Especially if you leave with Chris and Dani." Joey-the-tactician was present in full-force.

"W-w-w-wait." Dani looked close to shooting the nearest living object. "That means we have to go last, too."

"I'll tell you what, you go second to last, I can stand being in this dress a bit longer." Kelly blinked at Joey's look of frustration and promised good things when the dress did come off with her eyes.

"I think maybe we should let JC and Bobbie outta here first, then Lance." To Britney, JC wasn't just like an older brother, his last name may as well have been Spears. He had always been protective of her, and as she got older, she took on the trait in regards to him as well. Justin nodded in agreement and JC muttered something about owing them his firstborn.

"Now that we have that all straightened out, I have one question." Lance looked around the circle of them and already knew the answer. "Who planned the Howie Surprise?"

JC and Justin raised their hands hesitantly while Joey and Chris waived boisterously, falling just short of yelling "me" repeatedly. Britney just smiled and Lance knew that while the rest of them had probably made the arrangements, she had been the one to drop the suggestion by Justin, because sometimes she thought of things weeks in advance of when the guys would eventually get around to it, while something could actually still be done.

Lance winked at her. "I owe you guys."

It was a little over an hour later when Joey and Kelly were the only ones left at the party and were slowly starting to make their goodbyes. Chris and Dani dropped Howie, who had come in a taxi, off at the backdoor of Lance's place and headed home. Lance had left the door unlocked as agreed and Howie wandered in to find him in the living room, shirt undone, shoes and jacket left in a trail of discarded clothing, sprawling across a couch that seemed to dwarf him.

Lance smiled up at him. "Take that stuff off." He gestured lazily at Howie's body.

Howie shrugged his jacket onto the floor and toed off his shoes. "Wow, I didn't think you were quite ready for that."

Lance rolled his eyes. "Shuddup and c'mere."

Obeying, Howie crawled into the curve of Lance's body and was immediately wrapped up in a pair of arms. He sighed. "Been waiting for this for months."

Lance mumbled an agreement, "Since the last time we saw each other."

Howie exerted the effort necessary to get his mouth on level with Lance's and initiated a long, slow, thoroughly-fantasized make-out session that ended long after they had fallen off the couch and scared the living hell out of Dirk.

"Wow." Lance breathed the word against Howie's neck.

Howie didn't respond, just plucked gently at the buttons that had managed to stay done on Lance's shirt, pushing the material smoothly back. His fingers traced the skin of Lance's chest, whisping against the nipples. Lance sucked in a breath and watched, eyes wide. Howie lowered his head so that his mouth could follow in the wake of his fingers and Lance mustered the motor control necessary to move his fingers through the long brown hair spilling out softly over his skin.

Howie's fingers were at work again, deftly unbuckling Lance's belt, unbuttoning, unclasping and unzipping his pants. Slender fingers slipped beneath the hem of Lance's boxer-briefs and before he even felt them actually being removed, Lance moaned at the feeling of warm breath sliding over his cock. Howie purred, "Oooh, you're gonna be so easy, Bass," and snaked his tongue out to swipe at the tip. Lance writhed and Howie decided to take even more time than he had planned on. He blew again, this time aiming down the length of Lance's cock and following up with his tongue. He retraced his way back to the tip, where he swirled his tongue over the head twice, once gently and again, with slightly more pressure. Then, slowly, he swallowed Lance's cock all the way and made a swallowing motion with his throat. Lance screamed. Howie sucked. Lance's fingers dug into the skin of Howie's shoulders and he tried to remember what it took to breathe. Howie drew back and played some more. Lance whimpered.

By the time Howie was ready to finish things off, Lance had begged, cursed, screamed incoherently and cried. Howie combined a sucking technique with a swipe of his tongue to the underside of Lance's cock, drew back and swallowed. He raised his head to find the man below him unconscious. "Easy and good for my ego, evidently. I think I'll keep you."

Howie went to find a bathroom with a couple of washcloths and was greeted when he came back with a slightly disoriented, post-orgasmic Lance. The man on the floor smiled to the extent that he was able given his somewhat dubious control over his facial muscles. "Hi."

Howie sat down next to him and held up the washcloths. "Brought you something."

Lance seemed confused for a moment and then glanced down and frowned. "Um, D..."

"Lay still. I brought something for me too." Howie dropped the washcloths and proceeded to fish the bottle of hand lotion he had found out from underneath them. He flipped the top open, poured some into his palm, set the bottle aside and unbuttoned his pants, sliding them down with his boxers. Lance couldn't have moved if he'd wanted to, he was so taken in by what was going on.

Howie rubbed his hands together until the lotion had spread out and wrapped a fist gently around his cock. He worked to find a rhythm, first with his hand, and then with his whole body. The hand that wasn't engaged hastily undid the buttons on his shirt, and his fingers circled with light pressure around his nipples. His eyes kept track of Lance's, which were wide and dazed and so sexy that when he did come, he thought it was probably more from watching those eyes than any stimulation on his part.

Lance extended a shaky hand to where the washcloths still sat, a little less damp than before, but soft and cool and clean. He cleaned both of them off silently and threw the dirty cloths in the general direction of the laundry room. He crawled over to the couch and leaned back against it, motioning for Howie to join him. Howie crawled between his legs and curled up. Lance planted a kiss in Howie's hair. "Thank you."

"You're so polite."

"I don't know what to say."

Something in Lance's voice caught Howie off-guard and he twisted up to where he could see the younger man's face. "Something wrong?"

"No." Lance made the statement like there was nothing he'd ever been more sure about in his entire life. "No, not wrong. It's just, well, I was seventeen when I left home, yeah? Being real honest, Clinton wasn't exactly a hotbed of homosexual activity, and even if it had been, I was too busy feeling hellfire lick at my ankles every time I thought about a guy to actually make a move. The guys helped with that problem, because Justin, who has that whole down-home Christian thing going for him too didn't seem too bothered by the fact that a mutual friend of his and JC's was gay, and nobody else seemed to think anything of it at all. Shit, when I came out to them Chris was like, 'That's nice, could you pass the butter?' After awhile I just couldn't figure out how it could be so bad if the people I was closest to in the world weren't bothered by it, so, I worked on accepting. When I did, I still knew that gay or not, I wanted sex to be important, or at least more important than a drunken one-night stand, which was really all any of us had time for. With the image thing being real important I couldn't just go out and look for someone, and well, long story short-"

"You're a virgin. One hundred percent distilled, at that."

Lance nodded. "Is this gonna be a problem? Because, I mean, not that I have a lot to go on here, but I'm sensing you're pretty good at what we just did. Probably everything else, too."

"Babe," Howie rotated himself all the way around so that he could rest on his knees and pull Lance into a hug, not wanting to see the edges of fear that were creeping into his eyes, "I'm six years older than you. I grew up in Orlando and went to Valencia for two years. I indulged in drunken sex. I have practice. And, if being good is what worries you, that can be worked on. But I don't care how good or bad you are. You're too sexy just sitting in a room, fully clothed, for me to care. Your voice is too much of a treat on the phone when we can't see each other for me to care. Your choice in books, the way you actually do watch reruns of Lucy, which AJ laid a bet on being a 'look at me, I'm so good' lie, the tendency you have to keep cartons of red Jell-O in your fridge in case you need cheering up, the fact that you own a ferret...I could keep going, but, to make my point, it's not really the sex that drives me to keep Hallmark in business sending cards to you. I mean, you don't plan on keeping me around just because I get you off, do you? Or was this always part of your evil plan, to get a good blowjob and stomp on my heart?" Howie found the spot behind Lance's shoulder blade that the other man had admitted to being severely ticklish in, after Chris had attacked him while on the phone several nights before. Lance squealed and tried to pull away.

"No! No! I'm not with you for the sex!" Lance was continually amazed by how strong Howie was for his size.

"Oh," Howie said, rolling off of Lance, "I'm glad to hear that. Do you have anything besides red Jell-O in your fridge? I'm starving."


"You're kidding." AJ's eyes went round. "Jesus, that's intense."

"Yeah." Howie agreed glumly. "I feel like, I dunno, I'm defiling him or something. And, I mean, shouldn't he get the option of knowing whether he likes it better with someone else? Then, I get scared I'm gonna hurt him or-"

"Do you remember your first time?"


AJ winced. "I think we have the root of our problems right there. Getting beyond the whole Virgin Mary thing you seem to have with him."

"Very funny."

"Seriously D, forget the defiling. He's almost 21, definitely a consenting adult, it's not like you're making any decisions for him. Not to mention the fact that I cannot possibly see how sex with you could be dirty." AJ held up a hand to ward off arguments. "I get the whole no-two-men thing, I do, I was raised with it too. But you're my best friend, I love you more than anyone else in this world with the possible exception of my mother and I refuse to believe that intimacy with you, in any way, is dirty or negative or wrong. Period. Now, getting back to the other issues you seem to be doing a shitty job of dealing with, what made your first time so bad?"

"Where to start? He was drunk. I wanted to be but was too scared for the alcohol to be doing any good. Hurt like a motherfuck. It was just...if sexual preference were a matter of choice, that definitely would have turned me straight."

"The picture becomes clearer. This was the shithead who dumped you for a girl after ten months, wasn't it?"

"One and the same."

"Are you gonna be drunk when you and Lance decide to have sex for the first time?"

"Fuck no."

"Do you have some kind of straight complex that keeps you from understanding what it's like to be bottoming and therefore blocking any kind of sympathy for what he's experiencing?"

Howie rolled his eyes.

"You worry about all the wrong things, Dorough."


It was a little over six weeks since Lance had seen Howie, a little under four weeks since he'd been sent a home video of everything Howie did in a day, including his concert; the weirdest birthday cake ever, consisting mostly of butter pecan ice cream; a bottle of tequila with a note that only one shot was to be missing -- the rest would be utilized the next time they were together -- by the aforementioned boyfriend and a day and a half since their last phone conversation when he broke down and whined to Justin. "Dude, how do you stay sane?"

Justin didn't even look up from the computer screen he was intent on. "Being around you guys all the time it can be a challenge, but I have my ways."

Lance smacked him lightly upside the head. "I meant with Britney being away all the time, dumbass."

Justin rubbed absent-mindedly at the spot Lance had hit. "Well, it's not like you made that ever-so-perfectly clear." The computer screen flashed to a saver and Justin didn't reach out to change it. "Missing someone?"

"I just read the artist profile of some friend of Meredith's seven times and I couldn't even tell you if it was a guy or a girl."

"That's confusing sometimes."

"Just, I'm serious, you've been doing this for well over a year now and I never see you spazzing."

"Have you talked to any of the other guys about this?"

"Nah, 'cuz they're all able to sneak their girlfriends in more often."

"They still would've told you the same thing I'm going to."

"And that is?"

"You don't stay sane, you just force the insanity to stay on the inside where people who would hurt you with it can't see it."

"I don't get it."

"When Brit stopped touring with us, JC slept with me more nights than not so that I wouldn't have to cry myself to sleep from loneliness. Half the time, I cried anyway. When people started spreading rumors about us, I wanted to schedule a special interview with Carson just to tell people that she was the most amazing human being on this planet and I was gonna marry her one day, no matter what it took. When people say things about her virginity, I wanna get their names and addresses and have'em shot. That's not sanity. But I look at Brit, whether on TV, or in the pictures she sends me or during the rare times when we get to be with each other, and I know she needs me to keep control of things, so I do, for her. That's what you gotta find, the reason to control the insanity, not the way to keep from falling into it."

Lance didn't say anything, so Justin put his arm around his friend's shoulders and said, "You want me to sleep with you tonight?"

"If you don't mind."

"I think I could use it as much as you."


"You were ooooon tonight, Sweet D."

Howie rolled his eyes. "Thanks, Nicky."

Nick ignored the nickname. "We have a surprise for you."


"Me and the people in my head." Nick sounded exasperated. "The guys, who else? C'mon."

Howie allowed himself to be dragged by his arm through to the front of the bus, where the person sitting in the midst of his three bandmates told him that the stop they had made ten minutes previous had not been due to traffic. "Traffic jam, huh?"

"Yeah." AJ responded dryly, "Bass here was holding up cars with his damn sexy body."

"Happy birthday." Lance held up a bottle of tequila with one shot missing. "You have unfulfilled promises to me."

Brian looked knowingly at the bottle. "Howie has some serious 21st birthday traditions."

"I plan on creating some serious 27th birthday traditions."

Kevin snickered. "I like this one, we can keep him."

"Really, daddy?" Nick made his eyes go wide and excited and Lance laughed.

"I hate to point this out, but if you have me, you have my boys as well."

Kevin stood up. "I'm too old to be running a kennel. Following up on that thought, I'm going to bed."

"Following shortly on your heels. It was nice meeting you Lance." Brian held out his hand. Lance, appreciating the gesture for what it was, reached out to grasp it and said, "The pleasure was all mine."

Nick planted a sloppy birthday kiss on Howie's cheek before bounding out with a "I can take a hint."

AJ was still sitting. Howie slipped the tequila from Lance's fingers while looking at AJ without any menace. He said in a voice that matched his eyes, "I'm going to get the glasses. Two glasses," before leaving the room.

AJ wasn't one to play mind games. "Don't give me a reason not to like you."

"All things considered, that would be pretty stupid of me, wouldn't it?" Lance dragged his gaze back to the man sitting across from him.

AJ stood up. "I guess you could say I'm giving you a chance to prove your intelligence, then."

"One of these days, you're going to believe me when I say that I'm glad you're protective of him."

"Here's to hoping." AJ allowed the door to shut noisily behind him.

"His bark is worse than his bite. Mostly." Howie stood in the door with two oversized glasses, cool green visible through the frost.

"That was nothing. Chris told Bobbie that if she hurt JC, he'd kill her family members one by one before taking his revenge on her. He gets a little weird over Jayce, because he's not so good with protecting himself and after Nikki, well, we're all a little-"

"Rabidly protective?"

"I was gonna go with insanely, but yeah, that works." Lance reached up and took the drink from Howie. He sipped at it. "Damn, you're good with the tequilas, Dorough. Plan on getting me drunk so that you can take advantage?"

"Neither of us is getting drunk tonight."

"If you say so, it's your birthday."

"Yes it is, and you're my present. I like you sober. I like being with you when I'm sober."

"But Brian said you had traditions. That sounded like fun."

Howie laughed. "When Brian was about to turn 21, Kevin made the mistake of telling AJ and me that his cousin had never been drunk before. I mean, y'know, he'd had shots and all, but never out and out, falling off low furniture, kissing the nearest breathing item be it animal, vegetable or mineral, drunk."

"So..." Lance was grinning. He'd been that drunk.

"So the two of us convinced Kevin to think up a drinking game that involved biblical phrases."

"You're joking."


"I think I can safely say that I don't want to know."

"You can." Howie shook his head at the memory. "Babe."


"I'm sorry I missed your birthday. Chris and I tried everything, and when Chris and everything are involved in a sentence you know that-"

"He told me. I think he felt worse than you did."

"I really appreciate you being here."

"Would you stop acting like I'm someone you have to say that to?"

"You don't like hearing it?"

"Hug me instead."

Howie could deal with that.


Lance pulled Howie close to him, detachedly enjoying the feel of skin against skin. "I'm gonna tell AJ that he got your nickname just right."

"He'd laugh."

"Before trying to kill me."

"He'll only go Crocodile Dundee if you indicate that my obvious talents are your only reason for keeping me on."

"Keeping you on." Lance laughed. "D, there's no way in hell I could afford to keep you."

"Your blowjobs alone could keep me."

"Funny." Lance blushed.


"What?" He sounded petulant.

"The first time I gave someone a blowjob, I nearly maimed them for life."


"Oh yeah. I never had to question why that relationship didn't work out." Howie turned himself over to face Lance and traced the blonde's lips with one finger. "You're not gonna believe me, because I don't think you can really understand the way emotion changes sex, since you've never had any without it, but last night was by far the best blowjob of my entire life. I wasn't kidding when I said they would keep me. But it takes all of you, the full-Bass experience, I guess, to make it that way for me."

"Just wait till I perfect my technique."

"The guys hired you to kill me off, didn't they? So they could find someone younger and straighter."

Lance's eyes sparkled with an expression he had learned from Chris. "Maybe."


JC once asked if there was a lot of silence in their relationship. Lance had shrugged and said, "Not the kind you notice."

It wasn't that either of them talked a lot, or even that silence was particularly comfortable between them. It was the fact that they were two people who communicated through silence. The less Howie said, the more Lance knew what he wanted, and vice versa. When they needed words, though, during the hours they spent on the phone or when they would write to each other, the words were always there.

Howie had paid for nearly a whole night of conversation when Chris broke up and Lance spent a week with the guys doing nothing but making sure their friend was all right. Lance couldn't sleep and Howie said, "Chris and Dani aren't together anymore because they're the type to love hard and fast and not always understand the consequences of that." He didn't have to say that Lance always looked ahead and that made all the difference. He didn't have to point out that most of the time, their love was much more the casual, gentle type than the flashy, quickly-worn-out type. Lance inherently heard all of that and fell asleep to the sound of Howie's voice. Howie hung up when he heard the phone drop out of his lover's hand. He ended the conversation with a small, "I love you." Lance didn't hear.


Chris and JC found the bar at the post-Grammy party. Brian was already there with Leighanne and JC lifted his glass slightly in the direction of where Lance and Howie had maneuvered themselves into a conversation with a few other people so as to remain inconspicuous. Brian returned the silent toast.

Chris put out the effort to give a real smile, the losses were still too prevalent in everyone's minds to do much more. "At least these ceremonies are good for something."

JC couldn't return the smile, not even for Lance, right then. Brian could though, and did. Brian was far more hurt for Kevin, AJ and Nick, the last of whom would probably cry himself to sleep that night, than he was for himself. He was in this for lingering hero-worship of Kevin and the knowledge that if he had to live without the other guys, there wouldn't be much left of an already lacking heart. Which is why Brian would go to Nick's tonight, even knowing that he was wasting one of the relatively rare nights he got to spend with Leighanne.

Howie and Lance would take care of JC until early morning when they went back to AJ's room to make sure he had found his way home and wasn't suffering from alcohol poisoning. Brian thought about that, the way they split their time evenly between each other's friends, never seeming to notice that it took away from their incredibly few chances to be together. "Lance has been a really great friend to us."

JC looked surprised and Brian wondered how much the other man knew about his previous stance on the relationship. Chris was the one who finally answered him; "Same with Howie, the two of'em are like that."

"The kinda people you wonder how you got lucky enough to meet." JC was already on his second glass of alcohol, but his voice was still soft and he knew exactly what he was saying.

Brian looked at them once more and said, "Nobody else would really be good enough for them, huh?"


The first time Lance told Howie what he'd wanted to say since the first vacation they had gone on together, the first time they had made love and the first time they had sang together, came almost a half a year after all those things had happened and Lance wished it had been at any other time.

Lance flew into New York after the concert, catching some sleep on the plane, showing up at the hotel Kevin had informed him they'd be at around six the next morning. He checked into his room, finding the key that Kevin had promised to leave for him and slipped down the hall to where his lover was staying.

Howie didn't turn from the window when Lance came in. The younger man walked to him and gently pulled Howie against himself. Howie didn't seem to notice the touch, but he talked. "He went to Brian, y'know."

"He was too ashamed to go to you."

"I made sure he didn't die in a pool of his own vomit for almost a year, what the fuck is there to be ashamed about?"

"If I let JC down like that, I don't think I'd ever be able to talk to him again. Let alone tell him I fucked up."

"You think he's not gonna talk to me?"

"No. AJ's brasher than I am, and he loves hard. He cleaned up for you, he'll talk to you."

"How do you know what he cleaned up for?"

"Because in his last email to me, he just kept saying that he didn't deserve you."

"I always thought it was the other way around."

"You're both stupid."

"Yeah, but you love us." Howie sounded as if this were the only knowledge in the universe he needed at that moment.

"I do. I love AJ like family. I love you like the person who matters more than anything else."

When Howie turned around and kissed him hard and snuggled against his neck, Lance knew he had picked the right moment. Romance could wait.


"You know I'm sorry, right? I mean, you guys don't get to see each other much as it is, the last thing you should've had to be doing when you did was taking care of my lame ass."

Lance shrugged. "We're caretakers. Don't apologize to me for that."

"Something else then?" AJ knew better than to ask what.

"Something else."

"Has to do with Howie, then. I mean, I planned on saying sorry to you and all, but he was pretty adamant. You guys have serious protectiveness issues, you know that, right?"

"One of the things you like best about us."

"Walked right into that." AJ scuffed the already-worn toe of his right sneaker along the wood floor. "I'm sorry for disappointing him?"

"Getting warmer."

"Fucker. I'm sorry for damaging the tour and the group?"

"Colder, and you didn't damage the group. The tour'll survive. Howie doesn't even like this one that much anyway. He gotta actually sing some in the last one."

"We sing 'Show Me...'"

Lance didn't answer, because he heard AJ's awareness of the pitifulness of that answer in his voice.

"He sings more than you and you'd still be upset if your tour got screwed."

"Chris broke his hand, Joey nearly lost a leg, and I keep getting felt up by dancers trying to keep me plastered to the damn wall -- I could give a fuck less if this tour just up and died. I'd feel bad for the teenies, a bit, maybe. Not enough to revive it. And I'm the bass, we don't get solos."

"We give Kevin solos."

"Could you stop changing the subject?" Lance rubbed a hand over his eyes.

"So, I disappointed him. I mean, I can think of a million ways I did that, we could be here all night."

"I've been told my patience is legendary."

"Yeah, I've heard that about you." AJ smirked.

"I accept, Alexander, that Howie talks to you about us. If I didn't I couldn't talk to C or Chris when I needed to. But if you think I'm gonna sit here and let you be an asshole about it because you're to chickenshit to deal with yourself, we're hanging up."

"How is it that you can be entirely threatening without once sounding angry?"

"Being a bass has its advantages. Solos not being among them."

"I shouldn't've said that."

"That comment could apply to most of this conversation."

"Why d'you think I left it open-ended?"

"You can't expect me to know that you thought about something. With you, consideration of cause and effect is not the norm."

"Is this something I did to Howie when I wasn't thinking?"

"I'd be surprised if you had enough brain cells to think past what you were doing in the immediate moment at the time."


"Good answer, but no."

"I went to Brian."

"I'll give you a gold star next time we see each other."

"I couldn't go to Howie. Not after he told me time and again I needed help and I said, 'Me, need help?' I couldn't. If I had to see his face-"

"I told him all that. I just needed you to know how much it hurt him."

"I'm sorry for hurting him."

"Then we're okay."


Howie turned around at the sound of the car tumbling over grass and clumsily coming to a halt. He smiled as his lover got out, slamming the door hastily and nearly jogging to him. They caught each other in a hug almost simultaneously.

"Been too long." Lance whispered into his neck. They had planned early on to get together for a vacation after the tour. Agreeing that Orlando was the safest place to do it, they had scheduled for a week in early September and settled into impatiently waiting. The rescheduling of the Boys' tour had thrown those plans for a loop and it wasn't until late December that both of them had been available to make it out to Kevin's camping ground. The last time they had seen each other had been for those ten hours that Lance had hung around for the announcement of AJ's committing himself.

The last leg of the tour had been hellish for Howie, with AJ caught between intense guilt and ill-understood anger, Kevin and Brian frustrated at the separation from their wives and Nick going through a silence phase that none of them were really sure how to handle. Lance had been busy trying to deal with the insanely happy press vultures, sniping at them over the predicted end of teen pop, so that the rest of the guys would get left alone as much as possible. JC noticed his efforts and worked full-time in conjunction to help him cheer up the other three.

"I really needed you." Howie was surprised to find that he remembered how to speak.

"I thought I was gonna go insane, until right now." Lance hooked their hands together and walked with long strides that had Howie nearly running to catch up. He ducked inside the tent and laid down on the already-laid out sleeping bags, pulling Howie on top of him. It took Howie a few minutes to realize that the shaking beneath him was Lance crying. It took him less than half that time to join in on the fun.

When they were both done, gulping in large breaths of air and sinking from exhaustion even further into the heavy sleeping bags, Lance managed to say, "Sorry. Didn't know that was gonna happen."

"It was good." Howie's words were muffled in Lance's chest even as he rolled off of him. "Needed that."

"Don't think I can move."

They were both asleep before either one of them was brave enough to try.


When Lance thought back -- which, to his dismay, he did quite frequently -- he realized that it probably hadn't been the smartest idea for them to have both driven their own cars out to Kevin's place. Not that either one of them had particularly distinct cars, but they had license plates, and, if someone knew what to look for, neither car was hard to identify.

He knew that they shouldn't have stopped at the local diner to get the chocolate chip malt that Howie was so desperately fond of, either. At the time, though, it had seemed like the only important thing in the world was to have a moment of not being recognizable, not being Howie and Lance, just being in love and doing something stupid and simple together. They had both forgotten that stupid and simple and unrecognizable usually added up to danger.

Lance found out just how dangerous their moment had been when he found JC vomiting in the stylishly hidden garbage that his kitchen sported. Thinking his friend was sick, Lance had rubbed his back until the purging stopped and murmured reassurances. When JC was breathing fairly normally again, Lance admonished him, "C, if you were sick, you shoulda just told me to come over. I don't want you drivin' when you're like this."

JC shook his head, still unable to speak, and looked at the table. His Sunday subscription New York Times lay there, neatly folded to the Society section. Lance frowned, because a review was unlikely to be in that section and even if it had been, JC had long ago learned not to read reviews in the interest of his own well-being. Giving JC's lower back one last rub, Lance walked over to the table to see what had upset him so much. JC followed.

When he found it, it was all Lance could do not to vomit himself. JC's arms, surprisingly solid and still, gave him the ability to take it all in. They were good pictures of him and Howie, all of them. Things he would have liked to have for himself, but not by way of clipping them out of the gossip column of the Sunday New York Times. It was like looking at a memory book of their time together, with twisted captions. Mutely, he walked to the phone and hit memory seven. He listened to the ring on the other end, "C'mon babe, wake up, wake up, wake- Hey. Sorry to wake you."

JC heard the soft mumbling at the other end of the line but not what was being said. Whatever it was almost caused Lance to smile. Almost. "One sec, D." Lance covered the mouthpiece, "Jayce, could you get on the other line and get the guys over here."

He went back to his conversation without even waiting to see JC leave the room. "We have a problem, one that I really, really don't want to tell you over the phone. Do you think you could get yourself and the others over here in the next half hour?

Howie was wide awake. Years of being in potentially life-threatening situations with supposedly non-threatening teenage girls had leant all of the guys a tendency towards understatement rather than melodrama. Even Nick, the agreed-upon drama queen, could be surprisingly calm in the worst of situations. "We'll be there ASAP."


Howie stole the phone back from the receiver the second before it landed. "Yeah?"

"I really fucking love you."

The phone clicked before Howie could open his mouth.


"The Times. Well, never let it be said that our boy D doesn't do things all the way." Kevin looked like he was desperately waiting for the punchline.

"Motherfucking pricks." Joey continued to swear under his breath for several minutes while the others looked on in vicarious release.

"I talked with her." JC's voice was quiet, but it overrode Joey's.

They all stared at JC in confusion for a moment before Lance had the good sense to ask gently, "Who'd you talk to Jayce?"

"The woman who wrote the article. It was at one of those damn parties. Bobbie wasn't around and I had managed to lose everyone and I saw her and recognized her from her column picture and thought 'well, at least I have something to say to her.'"

Lance figured from the looks on Justin's and Joey's face that they were probably thinking, like him, about the way JC was scrupulously careful of the things he said. JC drew his knees up to his chest. "We only talked for a few minutes. I said I thought her column was well written, she said thanks, we talked about New York and I saw Lance and Howie at the bar so I said 'I think I'm gonna get a drink, you want anything?' She said that she was fine and to have a good evening and walked away." JC's breath hitched. "What if that was the first time she saw them together, when I was walking towards the bar? I mean, what if I gave her the idea, without even knowing it?"

Joey swore again and moved to a position where he could hold JC tightly and tell him it wasn't his fault.

Howie spoke for the first time since seeing the column. "It was our choice to be standing together that night, Joshua. Lance's and mine."

"I hate to point this out, but one choice leads to another and right now, you guys have to make one." Chris was generally of the opinion that members of the press were legal rapists, consent was a dirty word to them. "There's nothing in that article that proves the two of you are a couple. Although, what the fuck you were thinking when you decided to share a malt in the middle of BFN *and* allowed yourself to get caught on film is beyond me. Still, you can deny it. Which will take a lot of denying and about a year of not seeing each other. At all. Or, you can go out there, hold each other's hands and own up. I'm not gonna act like I don't have an opinion, but I'm also not willing to have this be anybody's decision but the two of you."

Justin nodded thoughtfully. "What he said."

"I hate to point this out, but once our decision is made, it's not just the two of us in bed anymore, there are eight other people getting metaphorically fucked. So, I love Howie, and I'll hate lying about us, but if I'm gonna get up there and tell truths, I need the people that I consider closer than my family to be behind me, agreeing with that choice." Lance squeezed his fingers tighter against the hand he was holding and looked at his boyfriend. "I'm sorry."

Howie didn't respond, facing away, towards AJ. "What's on your mind, McLean?"

"I was thinking you picked a smart one. I was thinking that I owe you guys a few. I was thinking that it's your life and I love this band, but no more than you do and that doing this together is the only way to do it."

Howie nodded and moved his eyes to Nick. "Kaos?"

Nick was crying softly and it was obvious that he didn't want to talk. He settled for a, "The teenies don't like you much anyway. I'm in."

Kevin was next in Howie's line of vision and he didn't make the younger man ask. "You're my best friend, D. Where I come from, you don't lie and you don't abandon your friends."

"You have three other best friends." Howie argued, because he felt like he might scream if Kevin didn't recognize that this was more complicated than the things a Southern code of honor covered.

"Two of which have already taken the stance I'm takin.'" Kevin smiled. "You think I'm -- we're -- ignorin' things, makin'em more simple than they are. It's you who's makin'em more complicated than they are."

But Howie thought there was nothing more complicated in the world than looking at a man you loved as a brother, who didn't consider your relationship the most wholesome thing in the world in the first place, and asking him to support it in front of millions of viewers. "Bri?"

Brian stood up from the seat he had occupied through the whole discussion and looked intently at Howie. "I made a mistake, about a year and a half ago. Almost lost a really good friend of mine. I've been waiting for a long time to find a way to make it up to him. Looks like I got lucky, huh?" Brian had crossed the room and made his way to Howie, moving to hug the smaller man tightly.

Howie hugged back before pulling away and turning to Lance. "Don't ever apologize to me for doing something you think is right. Your turn."

Lance raised an eyebrow. "Guys?"

"Fuck, I'm in. I mean, it's unfortunate that it wasn't Juju or C, but with you outta the picture, I could definitely take third place." Chris looked unconcerned, but Lance knew that of all of them, Chris was the one who had thought about the consequences the most, examining them from every angle. "Besides, I got you guys together, not much good abandoning the project before the china's picked out."

Justin tilted his head and pretended like his lower lip wasn't trembling. Lance was reminded of the Larry King interview when Justin was talking about getting stalked and thinking about the girl who had left a spiked leather collar on his window sill and sent him scary manipulated pictures of himself. "You owe me, Bass. You owe me so damn much."

Lance smiled sadly. "I know J."

Joey stared at him and said. "Even with us, it's your life. You forget that sometimes. Just, tell me something. You have told your mom, right?"

"Not formally, but she knows. I was gonna take care of crossing the t's later today."

"She gonna be okay with this?"

"I don't know."

"And if she's not?"

"I'll cry and do it anyway."

"What about you Howie?" Joey redirected his eyes.

"Caro accidentally told her one night while I was at college. She disowned me for a couple of weeks until she realized how much she missed me and called. There hasn't been a problem since and there won't be now."

"I'm yours to do with as you wish, then." Joey used his index finger to tap JC, who was still curled up in his lap.

JC looked up, seemingly surprised that everyone was looking at him. "Oh, my turn? Kinda a stupid question, y'know. Of course I'm gonna stand behind Lance."

"Jayce, what are you gonna do if the studio doesn't wanna renew our contract and there's nobody to put out your music?"

"Figure out something. I'll respect your decision, Lansten, you respect mine."

Lance understood JC's use of his nickname at that specific point. Lance had always loved JC for being the first to make him feel like part of the group. Even if the extra help he had offered or the hours they had spent harmonizing in the early days were probably more JC's perfectionism than actual effort on his part to reach out to the last member of the band, they had done the trick. JC always used the nickname that legitimated Lance's place in the band's name when he wanted to remind him that he was as much a part of the group as any of them.

"Lance?" Howie's fingers were back, tugging at his.


"We have fucking awesome friends."



Lance thought from the wings of the press conference stage that he couldn't remember a time when the din of pre-blood reporters had been so intimidating, not even during the lawsuit. His breath stilled in his throat and he jumped when Chris said firmly, "Breathe."

Lance tried without much success. JC, who was acutely aware of what that felt like, wrapped himself around Lance tightly enough to block his air passages and let go slightly after ten seconds. To everyone's relief, Lance's chest expanded with JC's arms.

Howie was next to him by this point, whispering that this was just a formality, that almost everything had already been said, that he loved Lance.

Lance's voice was small and breathy as he said, "I know we said we were gonna do this all professional, but I can't."

"Whatcha need babe?"

Lance reached out and grabbed Howie's hand with his own. "This."

"You want me to read your half the statement?"


"I can."

"I know. No."

"We have to go out there."

"Why are you so calm?"

"AJ told me everything's gonna be alright. Bone never lies to me."

"Oh, ok. Um, Chris?"

"We're gonna be here, Howie's gonna be here, the music's still gonna be here. How could things not be okay?"

"Right, let's get out there."

The had agreed beforehand that the Boys would file out first, Howie last, followed by Lance and rounded out by the rest of 'Nsync. Jive's representative had made it clear that a prepared statement was to be read before questions would be accepted, so the press was relatively quiet while Howie and Lance stepped up to stand behind the podium.

Howie spoke first. "On Sunday, January 4th of 2002, a column was printed in the New York Times, alluding to the fact that I, Howard Dorough was carrying on a relationship with James Lance Bass. The column was based on pure speculation and photos taken without either of our knowledge."

Lance took a short breath and stepped in. "While we do not condone the methods that were used in the printing of this column, both Howie and I felt that our fans could be trusted with the truth. That truth, very simply, is that we have been dating since early March of 2000."

Howie took the lead again. "We decided on short and sweet as the theme of this statement, so we're going to open up the floor to questions now."

Lance felt oddly secure the moment reporters started screaming. He remembered suddenly that this was his element, that he was, as Chris so delicately put it, "the suave pressbitch" of the group.

He picked out one of the reporters he recognized as being bloodthirsty but intelligent. "Donna."

"Both of you have widely touted your devout Christian beliefs, as have many of your bandmates, over the years, how do you integrate homosexuality into that set of ideals?

Lance was on it before Howie could lean into the podium. "My mother taught me to believe that Christ set out to help this world through love and understanding. There has been no greater love and understanding in my life then through Howie, so I happen to think that he fits into my religious outlook perfectly." He looked over at Howie, "Have anything you want to say?"

"My mother taught me that Christianity was based on the precepts of loyalty, love and honesty, and Lance has brought all of those to me."

"I'd like to say as well," Brian's accent was a little stronger, the way it was when he was really emotional about something, "that Lance and Howie are two of the strongest, most wonderful people in the world, and if they're going to hell for loving each other then I want to join them, because eternity without the two of them would be my own private definition of hell."

Howie's eyes were suspiciously bright as he pointed at the next reporter, "Ken."

"How do you feel this will affect your fan base?"

Both men let Kevin take that with a smooth, "We feel that our fans are mature and loyal enough to respect our decisions and support us through this as they have through legal troubles and substance abuse issues in the past." He nodded at the next reporter without pause.

"If that is so, why did it take the two of you so long to admit publicly to your relationship?"

Justin interjected at this point. "You might as well ask why it took me and Britney so long to admit to the rumors about us. The right of privacy is sometimes a lost concept on people who can take it for granted." He pointed at another waving hand.

"What about the supposed rivalry between the two bands?"

All the guys smiled slightly. Lance leaned forward again. "Howie and I are mediators. There have only been a few severe injuries over the past year and a half."

Howie let go of his hand and slapped it lightly. "While there may have been some tension arising from a very competitive market for male vocal pop groups in the beginning, there has never been any hatred between any of us, and what tension there was has definitely dissolved over the period that Lance and I have been together."

"Mm." The noise was low in Lance's throat and Howie knew he was the only one who had heard it, or understood it. Later, Lance would look at him with mischievous eyes and say "all of the tension has dissolved? I must be falling down on my duties," or something equally trite and scarily sexy. For now, though, he just said, "One last question, Laine."

"You must realize that, whether you wish it or not, you have become a role model and something of a hero to hundreds of gay and lesbian teenagers around the world in the last half hour, do you have anything to say to them?"

Lance put his arm around Howie. "First off, I'd like to say that I would hope I've been a role model to those kids without them having to know I was gay. As far as what I would tell them, there's nothing I can say here that wouldn't apply to everyone else in the world in some way, shape or form. We all have secrets about ourselves that we can be scared by and ashamed of. My advice is that being different, regardless of how that difference manifests itself, is not evil or bad or shameful. Most of the time, it's the differences in us that grow into our talents and the legacies we leave to the ones who matter to us most."

Howie squeezed Lance lightly in return and said, "I would nod my head at the incredible eloquence of my boyfriend and say simply, love is love. And, to quote a little boyband that grew into a musical landmark, it's all you need."

Lance was surprised when he managed to make it out of sight of the cameras before attempting to devour Howie through the act of kissing.


"You okay?" JC took the ice pack from Lance's wrist and replaced it with a new one.

Lance smiled tightly. "Physically, yeah."

Joey's hands continued to rub lightly on Lance's shoulders as he chided, "C didn't specify that question."

It was the second leg of the tour and they were all on the same bus due to everyone's unwillingness to leave Lance's side. Justin looked at Lance's wrist, dislocated when some girl had grabbed and forcibly twisted his wrist as he was passing the fans, hand held out. She had screamed something about fags, but Lance had been too concerned about not passing out to really pay attention. Chris had heard, Lance could tell from the look on his face when they passed each other after Lance managed to free himself. Justin groaned, "This is getting way too fucking regular."

Chris came back into the group area from the bunks and handed Lance his cell phone with a slightly guilty look on his face. Lance took it with the uninjured hand. "Chris busy scaring the shit outta you?"

"He managed to say you were doing fine about twenty three times in the first two minutes of the conversation." Howie did not sound reassured.

"With talent like that, who needs five part harmony?" Lance leaned back against Joey. "How's your shoulder?" It had been hurt when a "fan" threw rocks at him while he was exiting the hotel the Boys had stayed at the week before.

"Healing. She dislocated your wrist?"

"She was 200 pounds, probably named Helga. Really."

"Bet she really fit in with the rest of the crowd. It's okay Captain America, I won't let anyone know that pound and a half nine year olds can best you."

"And you'll love me anyway?"

"More than ever."

"My wrist is just fine."

It was only after he hung up and looked at Chris, who was still twitching with repressed anger; JC, who couldn't sit still and was busy rearranging the pillows so that Joey could rest comfortably under Lance, and Justin, who hadn't unfurled from his knees-tucked-in-and-wrapped-by-arms position in over an hour, that he said, "I'm not so sure about the rest of me."


Nick stopped eating again after someone managed to get a dissected and dismembered rodent to Howie with the note "that's what we do to human rats like you." AJ started sleeping with him at night, both to make sure that Nick wasn't throwing up what little they did manage to get him to eat and so that AJ wouldn't be tempted to drink. Kevin spent more time conferring with security than he did on the phone with his wife and Brian worked diligently to make the guys laugh.

Howie bought himself purple silk pajama pants and a huge stuffed Taz and took to living with both these items when out of view of the photo lenses. He made AJ deformed truffle balls to take off the edge, played marathon sessions of war with Nick, contributed relentlessly to the "Kevin Needs a Backrub" foundation and smiled for Brian whenever humanly possible.

JC developed migraines that made it impossible for him to do anything but lie in one place and attempt not to moan after the third out and out physical attack on Lance. Chris scared the shit out of Dani having some kind of irrelevant nervous breakdown over the men's FuMan line. Joey hid out in the bus kitchen, filling it with more novelty items from Williams & Sonoma with every stop on the tour. Justin wrote songs with too much bad language for it to even count as gangsta rap.

Lance went on a Dr. Seuss binge on Ebay while methodically working his way through the backlog that Joey's cooking spree was creating in the refrigerator. He made sure to tell Joey how much he enjoyed everything. He forced JC to go to a neurologist and put himself on pain meds before foisting him off on Justin to see if a little mediation on JC's part could help tone down what were otherwise pretty worthwhile lyrics. He called Dani and apologized before talking with Johnny about having some more time off the bus and convincing Chris to go on runs with him, in order to work off some of the excess stress.

Unsurprisingly, being that they were the only people in the world they could safely yell at, Lance and Howie fought a lot over the phone. More often than not, one of them would call the next morning to apologize and things would be okay until the next fight.

Until the night that it was nearly one in the morning and the two of them had been yelling at each other for almost a half an hour about the latest reasons why they couldn't meet up. For the first time in over two months of tension Lance quietly said, "I can't do this anymore."

It took Howie a few moments to notice that he was the only one yelling, but when he did he cut out mid-word and said, "What?"

"I just, I know that breaking up isn't going to change the fact that the world knows we're gay or the way things are going right now, but I can't deal with having to keep everything relatively peaceful during the day and then fight with you every night, and I seriously doubt this is doing wonders for you either."

"Lance, stop, just shut up, okay?" Howie was breathing hard. "Baby, listen to me."

Lance noticed his breathing was hard too. "I'm listening."

"Don't give up on me here. I waited 28 years to find something as right as you, I can't lose it in two. I know things have been shitty lately and that we're having a hard time scheduling and talking and just living right now, but my frustration, fear and exhaustion are not stronger than my love."

Lance was silent.

"Lance, please, tell me you're with me here. I need you, I can't do this without you."

"I can't tell if me being with you is more of a help or a hindrance."

"Knowing you're in love with me keeps me sane. Please, Lance, c'mon."

"I'm sorry." Lance hadn't noticed when his breath had turned into sobs but suddenly he felt about four years old. "I didn't mean...I still love you, I'm just-"

"I know babe, s'okay. I'm sorry for all the yelling I've done."

"We both needed someone to release to."

"Yeah, but I think maybe we should actually release instead of yelling at each other about completely unrelated topics."

"Be mature adults?"

"Worth a try."

After another ten minutes of reassuring each other they loved each other and apologizing for anything and everything they could remember doing to each other over the course of the relationship, Lance hung up and made his way to Joey's bunk. He climbed in, still sniffling and said, "Sorry about all the noise."

Joey pulled the smaller man into his arms and wiggled for a few minutes, trying to make both of them comfortable. "You guys okay?"

Lance nodded against Joey's chest. "For the moment."

"You don't have to be perfect for us, y'know."

"It's kinda all my fault, I feel like I should be at least helping clean up the mess."

"It's not your fault, silly. You wanna blame someone, blame all those people with irrational hatred problems." Joey was silent for a few minutes before adding, "You need him, and we need you guys. Like, we believe in what you guys mean, stand for, whatever. I don't mean this in a 'you have to stay together forever in order not to disappoint us' way. I just mean that we look up to and respect the two of you, and that helps more than all your calm or cheer ever will. Understand?"

"Yeah, I got it." Lance yawned. "Joey?"


"I hate to ask, but can I stay here for tonight?"

Joey pulled the cover more securely over Lance's shoulders.


JC approached Wade about changing the choreography a bit to keep Lance further away from the audience.

AJ called a group meeting wherein they worked out a way for Howie never to have to leave places where people knew the group was at alone.

Justin created a new grant for his foundation that was to be granted solely for the purpose of tolerance education.

Kevin got in contact with the people handling their mail and had two new staff members hired for the specific purpose of blocking hate material from Howie.

Fans of both groups who supported the two men in their decisions spoke out against the violence.

The hatred didn't go away, but the feeling that it was the only thing out there did.


"Hullo?" Lance was exhausted. Meredith had stayed on the phone with him the previous night for an hour freaking out over some disastrous appearance; Justin was having a fight with Britney and had taken it out on JC who was now sulking; Chris had a cold; they had been working for a month on the renewal of their contract with Jive, and they were in the last weeks of the final leg of the tour.

"Hey Lance, it's Kev."

"Oh, hey. Everything okay?" Lance hated the way his heart rate picked up when any of the Boys besides Howie called him.

"Relatively. You guys are going back into the studio pretty soon, right?"

"Uh, assuming this draft of the new contracts goes through, we'll be back in a month and a half."

"And if you have to redraw the contract again?"

"I figure two months, tops. Why?"

"Well, I mean, we gotta get on recording too."


"I think you should get to spend a little time with your boyfriend, how 'bout you?"

"I think if I wasn't in love with him and you weren't straighter than a ruler, I'd definitely be in love with you."

"So good to know."


They were right in the middle of laying down tracks for what they hoped would be their first single off the new album when the Boys noticed that they no longer had the high end of their harmony. AJ's hand flew out to hit Howie in the stomach. There was a grunt, but when the guys looked over to see why he had quit singing, all they could see was the nuclear grin on his face. Brian looked out of the booth in the direction that Howie was looking and nodded, "That other band came home."

Howie was already out the door of the booth, running toward their visitor. Lance caught him and they nearly spun for a moment out of sheer force of momentum. They kissed for several minutes on end before Howie pulled away, laughing. "Do I know you?"

Lance shrugged. "You look familiar. Like some guy in a magazine, or something."

"No kidding, you too."

They kissed again for awhile before they felt themselves being pulled apart. Howie looked up to see Justin tugging at Lance. Lance glared at AJ, who had picked Howie up and set him slightly further away from his boyfriend. Chris jumped in to give Howie a hug, "Stop hogging each other."

"Yeah," JC ruffled Lance's hair before moving to pull AJ into a hug. "Jeez, I mean, it's not like *we* get to see him any more than you do."

Kevin made his way to Lance and they exchanged hugs before looking out at Justin and Nick having a dissing contest; JC complimenting AJ's newest shade of hair dye; Chris trying to give Howie pigtails, and Joey giving Brian a noogie while Brian screamed about the unfair advantages of genetic makeup. "It's evidently been too long."

Lance snorted. "No shit, Sherlock."


It had been a couple of months after they'd come out that Howie had ever-so-casually segued from a quasi-argument over whether Scrabble or Clue was the better game to discussion about housing arrangements when they next made it back to Orlando. With what Lance fondly called Howie Brand Subtlety he had said, "And speaking of Scrabble, I know that your house in Mississippi, which, as a Scrabble word would be worth a lot of points, means a lot to you. You never really say much about the Florida one, though, and I kinda like the only one I have."

Lance had switched the phone to his other ear and replied, "Actually, Mississippi is a proper noun, you can't use it in Scrabble. What's your point?"

"Well, if the only time we're gonna get to see each other for more than a couple of days or an evening at a time is in Orlando, maybe we oughtta consolidate on the housing situation."

"You want me to move in with you?"

"I'm trying to be macho here and act scared."

"It's not your strong suit."

"Machismo, or acting?"

"Let's not go there."

"Good idea. Is that a yes?"

"To what? Oh. Moving in. Right." Lance had paused. "Well we've survived being apart so far, I suppose we might as well test the being together thing."

Howie's response had been a tiny, triumphant whoosh of "yes!"

Lance had dropped all his stuff off at Howie's place when he got in to Orlando, so that it was there waiting for him when the two men left the studio together that night. They went in through the garage and Howie latched onto Lance's hand, pulling him through the house. "I got something for you."

They ended up in what Howie referred to as "the hanging place" where he generally entertained on a more casual basis. Lance's eyes flew to the large, framed print hanging amongst smaller pictures and memoirs. It was a poster with all the original Dr. Seuss book covers and the years each had been published, directly underneath. He kissed Howie passionately. "I love it. I totally, totally love it."

Howie kissed him back. "So that you know this is house is really yours, not somewhere you visit when you're in town. K?"

Lance licked his lips. "If that's so, maybe we should have a housewarming party."

"Why Lansten, I think that's a fantastic idea."


Howie had sweet talked Nick into loaning the two of them his boat near the end of their stay in Orlando and they had scheduled a weekend of nothing but being out on the water.

Howie helped cast out, earning him a raised eyebrow and nod of approval from Lance. "Someone's learned a few things, huh?"

Howie shrugged. "A few."

When they were far enough out, Howie leaned up against the side, staring at the ripples. Lance came up behind him, wrapping his body around the smaller man, nipping at the space behind his earlobe. "That first time, there were so many things I wanted to do and I was terrified of every single one of them. I'm glad I'm gonna have a chance."

Howie turned his head to the side so that their lips just barely met. "Call me a sap, but I hope this is just one of many chances."

"I love you, sap mine."

Howie answered with a kiss.

| Back | Arsenic |